An article in the New York Times dealing with work and family quoted a recent study that indicated a gender gap on the concrete question of whether a given parent would prefer to stay home, with few fathers saying they would rather work part time and a large majority of mothers saying they would rather work part time or not at all. The division -of-labor advantages of having one breadwinner and one caregiver apply regardless of which parent stays home so from a purely economic perspective there should be no difference between the preferences of fathers and mothers within a family unit of two opposite gender parents and one or more children.
The knee jerk takeaway is that men are culturally programmed to focus on work and view child care and daily parenting responsibilities as not being masculine. No doubt there is a cultural component but I think there is ample evidence to support the premise that the cultural norm is secondary to the evolutionary fueled biological imperative for women to favor child rearing to professional attainment during their children’s early childhood years.
More evidence to support this point of view comes from drilling down into gender wage gap research. In many situations, the purported gender wage gap isn’t actually a measure of the often-touted “equal pay for equal work, but to a large extent, the manifestation of women prioritizing family over the workplace and fields they find more meaningful beyond just a heftier paycheck.
When controlling for these relevant factors, multiple academic studies show this pay gap shrinks to almost nothing. It’s just $0.98 for women compared to a $1.00 for men, according to PayScale Inc.’s The State of the Gender-Pay Gap in 2019. One recent Harvard working paper analyzing Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority data found there was no gender pay gap at all, once all factors are controlled for.
One of Harvard’s renowned labor economists, Claudia Goldin, examines the gender wage gap and finds that differences in cumulative career hours worked accounts for the remaining gender pay gap beyond the lower-paying professions women tend to choose — e.g., social work versus computer programming.
The wage gap and the preferences of women to prioritize child rearing over career, at least during child bearing years, is only partially fueled by culturally imposed norms . In general, a majority of women feel a higher priority and sense of purpose by focusing on raising their kids. The fact that men, again in general, find more meaning in family life by providing than in the daily routine of child care is not a product of sexism or patriarchy. Certainly in past generations this was sometimes carried to an extreme when men did little to assist in childcare. However, today’s Dads do change diapers and help with night feedings but still prefer for their wives to handle the bulk of the child chores and defer the burden of bread winning for themselves.
Unfortunately, the need for two incomes to maintain a middle class lifestyle has created conflict with gender preferences that makes family life more complicated and has led to a decline in marriages and birth rates. Affordable childcare and paid family leave would certainly help and give women more freedom in managing the desire to raise their kids with the need to earn and find fulfilling careers. My guess, even with these needed programs, men would still choose work over childcare. This is supported by data from countries with generous family leave and affordable day care indicates that men take far less family leave time than their female partners.