Sunday, June 29, 2014

It's reigning men. How our convict past explains our glass ceiling

Why does Tony Abbott have only one woman in his Cabinet of 18 men? Why does BHP has only 2 women on its 12-man board? Why does Australia itself have one of the lowest rates of female company directorships in the world?  

An astonishing 40 of our top 200 public companies have no female directors whatsoever.

It can hardly be the weather. The United States has greater proportion of women on boards. India outdoes us for executive directors. But it could be something to do with our values, something to do with where many of us have come from.

Economists often don’t talk about culture. They talk even less about how it is formed. Modern Australia was formed in an unusual way. Economists Pauline Grosjean and Rose Khattar of the University of NSW describe it as a “natural historical experiment”.

Their groundbreaking study is entitled It’s Raining Men! Hallelujah?

‘Unusual’ is an understatement. For the best part of a century from 1788 to 1868 a total of 157,000 prisoners were sent from Britain to Australia. Only 25,000 were women. By 1833 male convicts accounted for 80 per cent of the recorded east Australian population. Among convicts the ratio of men to women was 8 to 1. Over time the ratio in the general population settled down to 3 to 1. Just as is happening now in China in response to the one-child policy, a large imbalance of men and women can do strange things.

The father of of research into the economics of marriage is Gary Becker of the University of Chicago. He died last month aged 83. More than 50 years ago he suggested that wherever the number of men massively outnumbered women those women were more likely to marry and were more likely to marry up. It makes sense. With many potential suitors it’s easy to get hitched. With many potential partners to choose from it’s possible to discard those unable to provide well and marry those with real prospects. The alternatives were awful in the early days of Australia’s colonies - barely paid domestic service or prison. And marrying well could mean being well kept. The provider could provide for two.

That’s indeed what the figures show. In the parts of Australia that had the highest male to female ratios, women were the most likely to get married, the least likely to be in paid work and the least likely to work in high paying occupations.

Grosjean and Khattar’s shocking finding is that those differences persist today....

They’ve digitised maps in each of the state libraries to match up the results of Australia’s first censuses with the results of the latest census broken down by postcode.

Women in those postcodes today are less likely to work in high-status high-paid occupations. As they put it: “Historical gender imbalance still explains 5 to 10 per cent of the variation in the glass ceiling effect.”

Translated: Women who live where there was once a high ratio of men to women are even today less likely to break through the glass ceiling and make it to the top, perhaps because they are less likely to want to.

And there’s evidence that they are less likely to want to.

Grosjean and Khattar examined the responses from the modern Household, Income and Labor Dynamics Survey to this statement: “It is better for everyone involved if the man earns the money and the woman takes care of the home and children.”

Their finding: “Where the gender imbalance was most severe in the early days of white settlement in Australia, people are less likely to hold progressive views about gender roles.”

Much less. On average: “One more man historically for a given number of women moves the average Australian today towards conservative attitudes by nearly 6 percentage points.”

Attitudes persist through generations. This shouldn’t be surprising. The convict era wasn’t that long ago. Grosjean and Khattar say some of those answering the survey question would have had great grand-parents who grew up in the 1880s when the male female ratio was much higher than it is today. The use of the plough in agriculture goes back much longer, but another economic study has found that even today in the areas were the plough was first introduced women are less likely to be in the workforce and less likely to be involved in politics.

It seems the attitudes are passed down within families rather than through contact between families. Grosjean and Khattar examine the attitudes of Australians born outside of Australia and find no relationship to the historical gender ratio in the regions where they now live.

And they hasten to add that conservative attitudes aren’t necessarily bad, at least not for the women who hold them. The survey shows that women in locations that have traditionally had a heavy gender imbalance are happier in their relationships than those elsewhere, although “only when their husband works”.

But they are poorer. Women in areas where there was once a heavy gender imbalance earn an average of $1500 per year less than those in other parts of Australia. The shortfall isn’t made up by higher earnings from their men as might be imagined. “On average, every year, every person in these areas loses out on nearly $800 of income,” Grosjean and Khattar conclude.

Our views about what we want from work and what we want from relationships come from somewhere. Grosjean and Khattar believe they come from our pasts, and our parents and grandparents pasts. It isn’t easy to outgrow them.

Grosjean will present her trailblazing findings at a conference in the United States next week. There’s worldwide interest.

As for Abbott, he is attempting to outgrow his past. He is dismembering the stay-at-home reward known as Family Tax Benefit Part B and he is introducing paid six month maternity leave. We can change ourselves, but slowly.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald

Australia’s convict past has been evoked as an explanation for why so few Australian women make it to the top in politics or in business.

Pauline Grosjean and Rose Khattar of the University of NSW say it is not Australia’s convict history itself that has made women less likely to rise to the top but the very high ratio of male to female arrivals that accompanied transportation.

In some parts of Australia there was one woman for every eight men among arrivals, they report in their new study, It’s Raining Men! Hallelujah?

The high ratio made women sought after in marriage and able to marry up. The men who won their hands were prepared to work hard enough for two, enabling the women to stay at home.

Their important finding, to be unveiled at a conference in the United States next week, is in regions that had extremely high male to female ratios those attitudes have been passed down.

“Historical gender imbalance still explains 5 to 10 per cent of the variation in the glass ceiling effect,” they conclude.

Women living in those regions are today more likely to agree with the statement: “It is better for everyone involved if the man earns the money and the woman takes care of the home and children.”

They earn less than women in other locations but say they are happier in their relationships.

Pauline Grosjean said while female researchers had been intrigued by her findings some older men had been unsettled.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald

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