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  • Ofer Setty

It’s not biology, it’s an obsolete social norm

Updated: Aug 25, 2022

A key point at which a woman compromises on the nature of her work is the birth of her first child. A new study in the field of wage disparities refutes the role of pregnancy and childbirth and sheds light on what we should focus on.


In my previous post, I argued that the long work hours in Israel make it difficult for parent couples to hold two meaningful jobs. This results in the need for one partner to compromise on the nature of his or her work, and more often than not, the woman is the one to compromise on her career. This reality can, of course, also be presented as a man’s choice to work and a woman’s choice to be with the children, but it is highly doubtful that this perspective reflects the sentiment of our generation.


One of the most critical points in time when this compromise comes into play is the birth of a couple’s first child. At this point, the “biological” difference between the mom and the dad is created, as the former is the one who bears the burden of pregnancy and childbirth. It’s only “natural” then for the mother to stay at home while the father continues to work. And as a result, this pattern is maintained even after childbirth.


When we look back in time, the notion that biology is important to the gender division in the household is not unfounded. In the 1920s in the U.S., childbirth was a dangerous business. The risk of dying during childbirth was no less than a rate of 1 death per 125 births. In addition, for every 1 woman who died, another 20 women faced varying levels of disability as a result of complications during childbirth. In a study published in 2016 in a journal of the University of Chicago, two researchers found that postpartum complications were equivalent to a loss of more than one year of life per birth (the calculation was based on multiplying the disability percentages by the total years of disability).


Changes in the field of medicine (and especially the invention of antibiotics), in hospital practices and in check-ups before and after childbirth, led to a sharp shift in the statistics and in the overall reality. In comparison to the numbers of the 1920s, in the U.S. in 2017, the rate of dying during childhood was 0.02 per 125 births – 50 times less than that of about a century ago. In Israel, by the way, the number is even lower and significantly so – only 0.004 deaths per 125 births. At the same time, over the past century, the number of working women increased significantly, albeit more gradually and less sharply. If, in the 1930s, only 25% of women were part of the labor market, in the late 1990s, the rate was about 60%.


So, at least historically, biology played a significant role in the division of labor between men and women. But what about now? To what extent, if any, are biological factors important to the gender division? This is a rather challenging question because it is usually difficult to separate the influence of biology from the influence of social norms. However, a recent study conducted by researchers from Princeton University, the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and Copenhagen University examining wage levels in Denmark over four decades provided some interesting conclusions.


First, the researchers confirmed the well-known finding that, compared to fathers who do not experience a decrease in wages, mothers’ wages decrease by approximately 25% after childbirth and stabilize after a year or two, on average, at about 17% less than their income prior to childbirth. This is a dramatic figure, but it still does not explain whether the decline in income is due to biological or social factors. The novelty of the study is that it compared the experiences of biological parents and parents with similar characteristics who adopted children. Results of this research refute the biological explanation as this component does not play a role in the experience of adoptive parents, and therefore the influence of the social piece could be examined.


The study showed that the existing pay gaps among biological parents are almost entirely upheld with adoptive parents as well. Therefore, it appears that the current gender division in regard to work is not necessarily due to biology, but rather stems from an obsolete social norm. In contrast to biology, social norms are modifiable, and thus this reveals the importance of implementing progressive policies that will support, and accelerate gender-related changes within the labor market.


In this regard, paternity leave, which does exist in Israel, is insufficient for overcoming the existing norm, in part because the state does not encourage it. Data from the OECD in 2018 show that the percentage of men who go on paternity leave in Israel is among the lowest of all OECD countries – a rate of only 1% (which amounts to only 1,266 men, according to data from the National Insurance Institute). However, a paternity leave policy that would encourage more men to use it may alter the existing path that leads to gender differences at work.



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