Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Who Benefits From Women’s Progress?

Over the last couple of decades, professional achievements and pay have grown substantially for women — especially for married women — although they have not yet fully caught up with men. A recent study of happiness by gender suggests that men may have shared a significant amount of the gains from progress made by women.

Often it is assumed that economic gains by women create benefits for women (and perhaps their children), but losses for men. Economic theory does not support this assumption, because the job market is not a zero-sum game. Employment gains for one group can create benefits for others as these gains create additional opportunities to exploit the efficiencies of the division of labor.

Perhaps more salient in this recession is how job market gains by married women can ease some of the financial hardship from job losses by their husbands. Employed husbands also gain when their spouses are successful, in part because of the significant incomes brought home by their wives.

On Monday, the National Bureau of Economic Research released a study of happiness by Professors Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers of the University of Pennsylvania. Using a variety of measures for the United States and the European Union, they found women and men to be equally happy in recent years — decades after much of the economic progress for women had occurred.

If Professors Stevenson and Wolfers had found that men were happier than women in the 1970s — before much of women’s economic progress had occurred — the zero-sum theory of the job market would have some support. In other words, such a finding would say that women were relatively unhappy when their economic outcomes lagged behind men’s, and that their happiness caught up as their economic outcomes started to catch up.

However, they found the opposite — that women were happier than men in the 1970s.

Happiness measures are notoriously difficult for economists to interpret because happiness is measured subjectively — as answers to questions like “How satisfied are you with your life today?” Thus, one interpretation of this study is that happiness is measured in a way that is poorly suited to comparisons with economic outcomes, so that no conclusion should be drawn from such comparisons. On the other hand, some previous studies have found happiness to be correlated with income, health and other objective outcomes (although admittedly other studies dispute some of the correlations).

Professors Stevenson and Wolfers do not know why men and women have different happiness trends, but raise the question “Did men garner a disproportionate share of the benefits of the women’s movement?”

Given that men and women often live and work together, the answer to their question may be yes.

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