The formula for success?

Economists love technological explanations – for just about everything.

Gender Roles and Technological Progress
Stefania Albanesi & Claudia Olivetti
Until the early decades of the 20th century, women spent more than 60% of their prime-age years either pregnant or nursing.  Since then, the introduction of infant formula reduced women’s comparative advantage in infant care, by providing an effective breast milk substitute.  In addition, improved medical knowledge and obstetric practices reduced the time cost associated with women’s reproductive role.  We explore the hypothesis that these developments enabled married women to increase their participation in the labor force, thus providing the incentive to invest in market skills, which in turn reduced their earnings differential with respect to men.  We document these changes and develop a quantitative model that aims to capture their impact.  Our results suggest that progress in medical technologies related to motherhood was essential to generate a significant rise in the participation of married women between 1920 and 1950, in particular those with young children.

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19 Responses to The formula for success?

  1. Kevin Cox says:

    There is something fundamentally wrong with economic measures when the reduction of time a mother (or father) spends with their young children is described as “progress”.

  2. backroom girl says:

    But Kevin – where does it say that the amount of time that mothers spend with their children has decreased? It may well have done, but not in direct proportion to their increased time in the workforce, once again because of technological change that freed up a lot of time previously spent on what are euphemistically called “domestic duties”. My mother was a stay-at-home mother of seven children and I’m not at all certain that she spent more time one-on-one with me than I have with my own two children, despite the fact that I have always worked full-time.

    The other countervailing factor is, of course, that I suspect fathers now spend more time on average with their children than they did before 1950. Not to mention the fact that improvements in medicine mean that a lot fewer children are deprived of either or both parents through death.

  3. backroom girl says:

    All I can say is onward and upward!

  4. Patrick says:

    bg’s last point (in her first comment) is the best. More children (of the total born) than ever before are spending more time with more parents (relative to the total children) than ever before – progress even in KC’s view, I suspect.

    bg’s point before that one is a good one too. I reckon I spend more time with my kids than my dad was able to, even if choice is not the determinative factor.

  5. Sinclair Davidson says:

    Am I missing something? Didn’t we kind of know this already? I should also say it’s not just infant formula but the refridgerator and deep freeze too. Human milk can be frozen and defrosted (never in the microwave) – food preparation times have also fallen and, of course, food storage (fridge again) provides economies of scale in shopping.

  6. backroom girl says:

    Sinclair – it’s also a very instrumental explanation from my point of view. The only or main reason that women entered the workforce in greater numbers was that technological change left them with all those extra hours in the day, after they had got through the important stuff.

    Not that women may have actually aspired to full(er) or more equal participation in society and the economy and once they no longer had to spend 60% of their prime-age years pregnant or breastfeeding (‘orrible thought, that!) they welcomed the new opportunities with open arms.

    On second thoughts, my response to Kevin should probably have been along the lines that – “there’s something fundamentally wrong with a person who regards an increase in women’s workforce participation as a detrimental thing for society”. If you don’t think your children benefit from enough of your time, that’s something you should do something about, but don’t presume to tell the rest of us what is best for our children. And mothers are people too, you know – they are entitled to a life that they find fulfilling, whatever that involves.

  7. backroom girl says:

    Besides, Sinclair, just because everyone knows something doesn’t mean you don’t need an academic study to prove it 🙂

  8. Sinclair Davidson says:

    Technology also expands the division of labour – men can cook anything in a mirowave. 🙂 This is a complex proof of Adam Smith’s extent of the market is determined by division of labour.

  9. ChrisPer says:

    The wording seems to argue that increasing participation of young women in the workforce was a GOAL of the developers or sponsors of the development of infant formula.

    Maybe it did have that effect, but what Central Soviet 5-year Plan runs Nestle?

  10. Peter Whiteford says:

    I think there’s another NBER paper that estimates that before widespread use of electricity and automatic washing machines, people (presumably mostly mothers and other women) would have had to spend the equivalent of 8 hours in a week simply to doing the washing.

  11. Peter Whiteford says:

    And here it is

    Engines of Liberation

    Click to access engine.pdf

    University of Rochester, University of Wisconsin–Madison and Sabanci Universitesi
    Electricity was born at the dawn of the last century. Households were inundated with a flood of new consumer durables. What was the impact of this consumer durable goods revolution? It is argued here that the consumer goods revolution was conducive to liberating women from the home. To analyse this hypothesis, a Beckerian model of household production is developed. Households must decide whether
    or not to adopt the new technologies, and whether a married woman should work. Can such a model help to explain the rise in married female labour-force participation that occurred in the last century? Yes.

    “The housewife of the future will be neither a slave to servants nor herself a drudge. She will give less attention to the home, because the home will need less; she will be rather a domestic engineer than a domestic labourer, with the greatest of all handmaidens, electricity, at her service. This and other mechanical forces will so revolutionize the woman’s world that a large portion of the aggregate of woman’s energy will be conserved
    for use in broader, more constructive fields.

    Thomas Alva Edison, as interviewed in Good Housekeeping Magazine, LV, no. 4 (October

    1912, p. 436)

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  13. Joanna says:

    Didn’t anyone notice the impact of easily available safe contraception? That’s a much more likely cause than infant formula, especially as there was a prejudice against child care for babies until at least the 1970s. The pill was widely marketed from the early 1960s. There was no advertising, but it was a constant topic of female conversation simply because of its impact on women’s lives. Curiously enough the pill was the subject of a comedy “Prudence and the Pill” in 1969 (one of David Niven’s worst efforts). New wave feminism started its big push in the 1960s just as the first young women to have access to contraception were starting to make choices about their lives.

  14. Andrew Leigh says:

    Joanna, I think they didn’t mention the pill because economists have been banging on about it for so long. See:

  15. conrad says:

    Actually, this idea must get much messier cross-culturally. Its easy to think of countries in similar situations that don’t have high female workforce participation (let alone participation of married women with young chilrdren), and it isn’t just due to oppressive religious reasons (South Korea, for instance).

  16. backroom girl says:

    I think the main reason they didn’t mention the pill was because they focused on the first half of the 20th century, before the pill made its mark. But I think you’re right Joanna – in the longer term, having fewer babies has got to be more important than not having to breastfeed them. And despite the liberating effects of infant formula we seem to have managed to have quite a resurgence in breastfeeding without sending women back into the home en masse.

    I also like the liberation terminology in the paper Peter W refers to – sounds right to me. I have to admit to being a bit bemused by societies where women have very few children (in many cases, fewer than in Australia) but female labour force participation is still low. Nevertheless I’m sure those countries Conrad refers to are moving along in the right direction, even if slowly.

  17. backroom girl says:

    And getting back to the ‘don’t we know all of this already’
    theme, I don’t need a paper by economists to tell me that women used to spend 8 hours a week doing the laundry – I remember the Monday washing day very well from my childhood.

  18. Kevin Cox says:

    backroom girl I am not saying anything about the desirability of technological advantages of improving the lot of men and women.

    What I was trying to point out that economic measures give no value to the time we spend with our children – quite the contrary. If – for example – I choose to spend more time with my grand children and not spend time doing paid work – then my economic contribution to society will decrease.

  19. backroom girl says:

    Kevin, I can agree with you that economic measures don’t necessarily value things that do not have a dollar value readily attached, but what was the point of making that comment in response to this post if not to imply that more female labour force attachment is not a good thing? If that is indeed what you think, I’m afraid I have to disagree.

    In any case, the abstract that Andrew included in his post only used the word progress in association with technology and medical advances – it didn’t actually express an opinion about increased female LF participation.

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