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Forum: Women, marriage, and inequality

Author(s):
International Monetary Fund. External Relations Dept.
Published Date:
July 2005
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Love conquers all? Well, maybe, but the decisions we make about marriage will likely have long-term economic consequences— not only for ourselves, but also for society. In a seminar arranged by the IMF Institute, Professor Raquel Fernández of New York University presented provocative findings on marriage and inequality, and the influence of culture on women’s decisions about work and children.

Fernández first discussed what she calls “sorting”—deciding whom we go to school with, work with, marry and have children with, and choose to be our neighbors. This process takes place along many dimensions, including income, aptitude, education, tastes, and race, and has important consequences for our place—and our children’s place—in society.

A vicious circle

Fernández’s findings—based initially on a study of the United States, but later extended to cover 34 countries—suggest that in societies marked by great inequality, individuals are more likely to interact with, and therefore marry, people from a similar background. This kind of sorting not only perpetuates existing inequality, it exacerbates it, creating a vicious circle. As Fernández explained, “if marital sorting increases, then a smaller fraction of children will become skilled. This drives down wages for unskilled workers and increases those of skilled workers and also increases the degree of wage inequality.” By contrast, countries whose citizens more readily marry across socioeconomic lines are more likely to achieve an overall increase in educational attainment—Sweden and Australia are two such examples.

Culture matters

In a different study, Fernández sought to show that culture (in addition to markets and institutions) matters in women’s decisions to work and have children. She and her colleagues studied a data sample from the 1970 U.S. census that included women born in the United States whose parents had been born outside the country. To isolate the effect of culture, they used past labor force participation and fertility variables in the ancestry country as cultural proxies—assuming that these variables reflected markets, institutions, and culture (beliefs about the appropriate role of women) in the country of origin. If these variables helped determine the behavior of women born and raised in the United States, it must be because they still captured cultural beliefs that family (and neighborhoods) had transmitted to these women.

The women in the data sample were, on average, 35.7 years old, had 3.1 children, and had worked 15.2 weeks in the previous year. But the variations across cultures were significant. For example, women with Cuban fathers worked 27.6 weeks on average and had 2.4 children. In contrast, women with Mexican fathers worked only 4.2 weeks on average but had 4.2 children.

After controlling for various other factors (the women’s education, residence, and their husbands’ background), Fernández and her colleagues showed that the cultural proxies were still relevant. These findings led her to conclude that culture “is a quantitatively and statistically significant determinant of women’s work and fertility outcomes.”

Laura Wallace

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