February 18, 2005

· Gender · Sociology

Now that Larry Summers has begun to live up to his putative commitment to open, freewheeling inquiry by finally releasing a transcript of his infamous remarks, various people are commenting on it. Matt Yglesias says

I don’t think you can reasonably expect any given university (or corporation, or person) to singlehandedly shoulder the burden of changing a set of social expectations that’s become very well entrenched over a very long period of time. At the same time, you can’t just do nothing about it, either.

Bitch, PhD addresses this issue pretty well. The main point is the first step toward addressing what Matt properly calls “a set of social expectations that’s become very well entrenched over a very long period” is to stop treating it as a simple result of the expression of individual preferences, which was one of the main things Summers did in his remarks. Now, in other social-policy contexts, economists will jump all over you for not properly considering the incentives that shape people’s choices and smugly wheel out one-liners like “People respond to incentives, all else is commentary.” There’s a lot to that observation. But in contexts like gender and the labor market, the emphasis instead gets put on individual preferences as the mainspring of choice, rather than considering the social origins of the incentive structure.

Here is an old post of mine, written in response to something Jane Galt (aka Megan McArdle) wrote. It addresses this issue a bit, with some pointers to accessible and practical discussions of it by specialists—some of the literature that Summers just baldly ignored, or was inexcusably ignorant of. As I said back then,

Jane’s initial question — “Should we [women] stay home, or shouldn’t we? It’s a difficult question for professional women” — effectively concedes the case as lost from the get-go. It frames the problem as wholly belonging to the prospective mother. Dad has no responsibility towards his potential offspring, is not required to make any work/family tradeoffs, and indeed has so much autonomy that a woman who chooses kids over career is “taking a huge financial bet on her husband’s fidelity.” … The institutions that structure people’s career paths may have deep roots, but that’s not because they spring naturally out of the earth. Cross-national comparison shows both that there’s considerable variation in the institutionalization of child care, and that this variation can have odd origins. … [They] aren’t immutable, either. In fact, in the U.S. they’ve changed a great deal since the early 1980s … Looking at the problem this way makes one less likely to fatalism about tragic choices, wanting to have it all, and the inevitable clash of work and family. … It also has the virtue — as C. Wright Mills put it forty years ago — of letting us “grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society,” rather than forever being stuck at the level of individual women facing insoluble work-family tradeoffs.

None of that is particularly original, by the way. It’s a well-developed perspective with plenty of empirical evidence and theoretical elaboration, and even a little bit of reading in this area would make that evident. That’s why Summers’ audience was so ticked off—though, in fairness to the guy, I think at this stage his perilous position has little to do with the remarks themselves anymore, and is more a move by his opponents against his Presidency in general.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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