03 December 2015

Nobody cares that you brought cupcakes

Melissa writes*

The pipeline funneling women into the workplace is cranking. Today, women represent 40% of the global labour workforce. Girls now outnumber boys in secondary schools in 45 developing countries, and there are more females than males in universities in 60 others. We have much progress to celebrate but gender disparity still remains in many areas, and strangely even in rich and developed countries.

The United States paved the way to increasing women’s participation in the labour workforce, but this progress seems to have hit a glass ceiling. In the 1960s and 70s, Gloria Steneim’s rose tinted sunglasses lit the fire of feminism, and books like The Feminine Mystique and tunes like “I Am Woman Hear Me Roar” told women that they had more potential than homemaking and to swap those aprons for pantsuits.

However, something seems to have changed as floods of college-educated American mothers have vacated the workforce in the past decade. These women, dubbed “Opt-Out Women” have conceded their role in the workplace after years of investment in their education and careers. In 1990, the United States had the highest labour force participation rate amongst women. By 2010, it had fallen to 17th place behind Brazil, Kenya, the Netherlands and Singapore. What’s going on here? It might be an autonomous choice, but there seems to be persistent market and institutional conditions that make it a reasonable one.

This is (clockwise from me on the right) my grandmother, mother and aunt in the hairsalon they run together in Kuala Lumpur. They work full-time both weekdays and weekends. They raised me, my brother and cousins in a little office at the back of the salon, taking turns to look after us in between appointments with clients- merging home and work into one single place, their version of workplace flexibility.
In 2013, the median weekly full-time income for men was $860, and $706 for women. The U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee reported that studies have consistently found unexplained pay differences even after controlling for predictable variables like education and work hours. Maybe gender roles have become so deeply-rooted in human history and mentality that paying women less has become the norm?

Forget about wages, even colleagues perpetuate double standards. A NYU study looked at male and female employees who were requested to stay back after work to help a colleague prepare for a presentation. After controlling for quality of help, colleagues had significantly more gratitude for a man who helped out than a woman. A woman had to work overtime just to have the same rating as a man who chose not to help at all.

Studies have shown that women also take on more “office housework”. Tasks like mentoring the interns and organizing office birthday parties fall on professional women even in fields like business, law and STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, Math).

As a result, women are making choices within their careers consistent with ability for workplace flexibility. A study that followed Harvard students after graduation showed that women PHD and MD graduates were choosing to specialize in pediatrics, dermatology, and colon and rectal surgery (recently popular and quite routine) which have more appointment-based schedules, less “surprise hours”, as well as slower learning curves (technology and new knowledge not updated as often). Men were going for cardiology, radiology and surgical specialities which tend to have more diverse work hours and longer residency requirements. Also conveniently tends to pay more.

Sexism is expensive. A McKinsey study called “The Power of Parity” has evidence that equality for women could generate up to $2 trillion in global growth. Every “stay-at-home” woman makes a country lose billions of GDP dollars. If more women participated in the labour force, India’s GDP could increase by 16% to 60% by 2025.

I don’t want to put any value on “paid work” above home-making. Being “a member of a country’s labour force” doesn’t sound like a very exciting life purpose, and cooking a meal for your family can be considered leisure to some or work to others, depending on who you are. But in a world where everyone wants to work, there seems to be market and institutional setbacks which influence women’s labour choice decisions, and thus potential income.

Bottom line: Getting women to participate in the workforce can generate both growth and development for a country’s economy. Developed countries that have made significant progress in gender equality, but they seem to have hit a glass ceiling. Less wages, lack of workplace flexibility and underappreciation of work performed are (disproportionately) women's opportunity costs of choosing paid work over household production.

* Please comment on these posts from my growth & development economics students, to help them with unclear analysis, other perspectives, data sources, etc.

  • "Gender Equality and Development." World Development Report 2012. 2012. Web.
  • "Women in the Labor Force: A Databook." December 2014 Report 1052. 2014. Web
  • Bertrand, Marianne, Claudia Goldin, and Lawrence F Katz. "Dynamics Of The Gender Gap For Young Professionals In The Financial And Corporate Sectors." American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 2 (2010): 228-55. Print.
  • Goldin, C., and L. F. Katz. "The Cost of Workplace Flexibility for High-Powered Professionals." The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (2011): 45-67. Print.
  • Heilman, Madeline E., and Julie J. Chen. "Same Behavior, Different Consequences: Reactions To Men's And Women's Altruistic Citizenship Behavior." Journal of Applied Psychology 90.3 (2005): 431-41. Print.
  • Nandy, Amrita. "The Work Women Do." The Indian Express. 6 Nov. 2015. Web.


  1. well written, great points! I am one of the opt out women after having my 2nd child. Women's software developer salaries are lower than men's and not random (public lab, open data), my projects are marginalized because of maternity leave, and it is not acceptable to work part time. It is too challenging to balance everything. I wish I had a work environment like these women! Software dev can be easily done from home so that's what I am going to aim for.

  2. Amazing post, Melissa! Just when I think I can 'forget' gender and just move on, articles like this show up...

    Which reminded me of an pretty successful initiative of the Stanford School of Medicine to re-establish a work-life balance amongst its faculty - with obvious benefits for women. The initiative, dubbed 'time-bank', basically gives credit for 'cupcakes', or the unrecognized extra effort one puts into mentoring, committee work, filling in for a colleague on short notice etc. The points earned by making such efforts can then be converted into help with menial tasks such as filling bibliographies, delivering home meals, running errands, housecleaning and other such things (as part of a program ran by the organization itself).

    As you can expect, everyone is super-stressed as an academic doctor, but these issues seems to aggravate the gender disparity, with more women quitting than men when the demands of parenting become impossible to meet. And more - what I find really interesting - is that even in splitting their time at work women tend to do more teaching and committee service rather than writing grant applications and research, which are the avenues for further career promotion. Initially upon reading that article on the Stanford program ( https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2015/08/20/the-innovative-stanford-program-thats-saving-emergency-room-doctors-from-burnout/) I couldn't understand why would women prefered committee service to research: was it something wired in our brains in early childhood? :D But then your blog post got me thinking that the gender disparity could be due to the 'cupcake expecting' culture - the idea that women should do more than just the job for the crew to earn the same respect...

    So thank you, and best of luck in reading week!
    PS: awesome picture, you surely have great examples in the women in your family!


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