Back in the 1970’s, economist Gary Becker bravely took on the unconventional topic of how couples allocated time between work and home. He argued that because men are paid higher wages than women, output in the home would be maximized when men specialized in market labour and women specialized in the home production.
Thus the traditional arrangement in which men worked and women cared for the family was not fundamentally based on sexist notions of female inferiority, but rather the result of households, just like firms, allocating tasks to workers based on their relative strengths.
Which isn’t to say that women should never work, but rather that if the needs of the family were such that someone had to reduce their time in the work force, that someone should be the lower-wage-earning wife.
Becker’s argument seemed reasonable and, as a result, exactly zero time was spent asking questions like: “How does being out of the work force make women feel?” or “Does being fully responsible for the financial well-being put undue stress on men?”
Despite our preconception that marriages in which the wife earns more than the husband is a modern anomaly, at the time this theory was proposed about 14 per cent of Canadian dual-earning couples were such that the woman earned more than her husband, and yet in only 1 per cent of households with a stay-at-home parent, was that parent the father.
The truth is that Becker’s theory might have been able to “explain” why women have stayed home while their husband worked, but has never been able to explain why men who are married to higher earning women have not.
Today, Canadian women earn as much, or more, than their husbands in about one in three dual-earning households. A preliminary look at the evidence might suggest that families are reorganizing to take advantage of women’s increased earning power; the number of women who are stay-at-home mothers has fallen to below one third of what it was in 1976, while the number of men who are stay-at-home dads has increased threefold.
But those numbers don’t add up; the number of stay-at-home mothers has dropped by well over a million, while the number of fathers staying home has increased by an entirely unremarkable 40,000.
Which, by the way, hasn’t stopped us from obsessing over questions like: “How does being out of the work force make men feel?” or “Does being fully responsible for the financial well-being put undue stress on women?”
And perhaps these are the questions we need to be asking, if for no other reason than to understand why it is that despite gains in the work place, it is more often than not the mother’s earnings that are sacrificed when someone needs to be home.
Recent research out of Stanford University finds that 15 per cent of the total increase in output per worker between 1960 and 1980 can be explained by fact that jobs increasingly were going to the most productive workers, regardless of whether or not they were male or female. Imagine the potential for growth if two-parent families took the same approach and allocated tasks in a way that allows the parent who is the most productive in the work place to focus on earning an income.
One closing note, this isn’t just true for workplace productivity. It isn’t hard to imagine that there could many families in which the father would make the better caregiver than the mother. Until we finally admit that, not only are our companies deprived from having the best possible workers, but our children are deprived from having the best possible care.
Marina Adshade is the author of Dollars and Sex: How Economics Influences Sex and Love and teaches at the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver School of Economics.