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Can women have it all? Using the data to find out

Marianne Bertrand's research is replacing anecdotes with numbers

By Emily Lambert     
July 01, 2013

From: Magazine

In the summer of 2012, Princeton Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter rekindled a long-simmering debate about whether professional women can "have it all." The cover story she wrote for the Atlantic recounted how difficult it was to balance being a mother with being the first woman director of policy planning at the US State Department and concluded that the economy and society needed to change. 

Her article kicked off what may be the biggest public discussion about American women and their happiness since the 1970s. Debora Spar, the president of Barnard College, wrote an article for the Daily Beast in which she described going back to the classroom a few weeks after giving birth to her second child. Sheryl Sandberg, COO and a board member of Facebook, added her two cents (and the credibility of a woman with a net worth of $2.7 billion) with a book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. In the spring of this year, New York magazine hung much of a cover article about the "feminist housewife" on a description of a stay-at-home-mom in New Jersey, 33-year-old Kelly Makino, who, according to the article, "believes that every household needs one primary caretaker" and that women are better suited for it.

In this contentious and at-times maddening discussion, anecdotal evidence is abundant, particularly from and about superwomen who have had children and achieved high levels of professional success. But one thing is often missing: data. Marianne Bertrand, Chris P. Dialynas Distinguished Service Professor of Economics, has set out to correct this, replacing anecdotes with numbers, helping make possible a more data-driven, evidence-based discussion.

Like so many others, Bertrand is doing the work-family juggle. The 43-year-old native of Belgium joined Booth in 2000. She had originally intended to be a journalist until a college professor steered her towards economics and a PhD. She teaches, is a research fellow at several centers including the National Bureau of Economic Research, codirects Booth's new Social Enterprise Initiative, and is on the board of the Neubauer Family Collegium for Culture and Society at the University of Chicago as well as the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab. She also coedits the American Economic Review, and she has two young children. 

But as an economist, Bertrand is more interested in societal trends than she is in her individual situation, drawing conclusions from large datasets. "Data give us this broader picture," Bertrand says.

That broader picture is still coming into focus. Some research shows that over the past century, women have moved closer to having it all. A 2004 study by Harvard's Claudia Goldin divides women into cohorts according to their date of graduation. Then she looks at data about marriage, birth rates, and earnings measures. In Goldin's paper, most women who graduated from college in the United States between 1900 and 1919 had a career or family, but not both. Women who graduated between 1946 and 1965 did more to combine family and career but grew frustrated with the treatment they received at work. Women who graduated between 1980 and 1990 were most successful (of the women in the paper) when it came to blending career and family. That group "probably has had the greatest achievement in this regard among all cohorts of college graduate women in US history," Goldin writes.   

Measuring satisfaction and well being

Bertrand is revisiting the question—can women have it all?—and treating it like a calculation. Here's a very simplified version: say a woman gets x amount of satisfaction and well-being from work, and y amount of satisfaction and well-being from family. By having it all, do women have x + y? 

How are x and y even defined and measured? In a short paper, Bertrand takes one measure from the General Social Survey, a broad survey that has been conducted nearly annually since 1972 by NORC, a social science research center at the University of Chicago. She uses answers to the question, "Taken all together, how would you say things are these days—would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy or not too happy?" She constructs a dummy variable that equals one if the respondent answers "very happy," zero if the answer is anything else. 

She also uses data from the 2010 Well-Being Module of the American Time Use Survey, compiled by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, which measures the time people spend doing various activities. Some respondents completed a 24-hour diary for the survey, and were queried about three activities from the diary. For each, respondents were asked to rate their feelings on a scale from zero to six, with six being strongest. Bertrand constructs an index that helps classify each episode as pleasant or unpleasant.  

Bertrand looks specifically at data from female college graduates between 25 and 54 years old who were working inside or outside the home. She finds that when it comes to satisfaction, women with families and careers are not getting x + y—more frequently, they're getting x or y. Of this group, 43 percent say they are very happy. That's less than the 47 percent of women with families but not careers who say they're very happy, although it's also more than the 29 percent of women with careers but not families who say the same. "Among college-educated women with family, those with a career spent a larger share of their day unhappy, sad, stressed, and tired compared to those that are staying at home," Bertrand writes in the study. She finds similar patterns in the well-being data. 

It seems logical that women trying to have it all would seek happiness at work and at home but be hampered by double stresses. Bertrand's research shows that women often fall behind at work when they have kids. A 2010 study, which Bertrand coauthored with Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz of Harvard, shows that male and female graduates of Chicago Booth's MBA programs start with nearly identical incomes. Men eventually earn much more, mainly because when they have kids, some women work shorter hours or experience financial penalties for having taken some time off from work. 

Working women pay a social price

At the same time, women trying to have it all can face challenges at home, too. More Bertrand research—a recent working paper she writes with Chicago Booth Associate Professor of Economics Emir Kamenica, and the National University of Singapore's Jessica Pan, a former Booth PhD—shows that a woman who earns more than her husband is less likely to be "very happy" with her marriage and is more likely to get divorced.  

This suggests that for more working women with families to be very happy, both work and home norms need to change. Workplaces should accommodate flexible schedules so women can have children and continue working as much as their male counterparts do—a point that has been discussed in the anecdotal debate. The research also suggests that social stereotypes, such as those that imply breadwinners are male, need to be reexamined by women and men. "Progress needs to be made on both sides," says Bertrand. 

That assumes that life satisfaction and well-being data is the best way to measure "it all"—and it may not be. Bertrand says about her calculation that it may be "these well-being measures are not giving you a full picture of life." Available well-being measures don't account for other sentiments, such as the feeling of control that a woman gets from having an income and financial independence. Also happiness may be a moving target, a measure based on a person's own changing expectations. Research by the University of Michigan's Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers finds that while the gender gap in pay narrowed in the United States and Europe between the 1970s and mid-2000s, and while women made gains at work and in education, women became less happy. One possible reason for this might be that women have over time developed higher expectations for life.

Defining exactly what to measure and calculate is more than a theoretical exercise. Women, according to research coauthored by Booth Professors Erik Hurst and Chang-Tai Hsieh, have along with black Americans spurred up to 20 percent of US growth over the last half-century. Moreover, in many parts of the world the question of what women want is profoundly shaping economies. In East Asia, where women's education and income has improved faster than their status, marriage and birth rates are plummeting as women marry later, or not at all. The mean age of marriage has risen by five years in some countries in three decades, and the fertility rate of East Asian women fell from 5.3 in the late 1960s to 1.6, according to a 2011 Economist article. 

Policymakers need data to craft policy that affects millions of people and not only a narrow subset participating in a public debate. That makes "Can women have it all?" one in a series of questions worth asking—and with answers worth finding.

Papers cited

Marianne Bertrand, “Career, Family 

and the Well-Being of College-

Educated Women,” American 

Economic Review Papers & 

Proceedings, May 2013.

Marianne Bertrand, 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, July 2010.

Marianne Bertrand, Emir Kamenica, and Jessica Pan, “Gender Identity and Relative Income Within Households,” Working paper, February 2013.

Claudia Goldin, “The Long Road to the Fast Track: Career and Family,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, November 2004.

Chang-Tai Hsieh, Erik Hurst, Charles I. Jones, and Peter J. Klenow, “The Allocation of Talent and US Economic Growth,” NBER working paper, January 2013.

Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness,” American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, August 2009.