Women want to work, despite workforce precarity

Despite persistent gaps in workforce participation, when it comes to wanting to work the gender gap has all but disappeared over the last 45 years, says Cornell sociologist Landon Schnabel.

In America, women are now just as likely as men to report working because they want to – not because they must, according to the new study by Schnabel, the Robert and Ann Rosenthal Assistant Professor of sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences. Even among very religious Americans, where men still report wanting to work more than women, there’s movement toward parity over time.

At a moment when women’s labor-force participation was disproportionately curtailed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Schnabel said, the study indicates that structural or societal forces outside women's control are barriers to full work parity with men, rather than their own preferences.

“Overall, the gender gap in working for its own sake has consistently declined [and] is now virtually nonexistent,” Schnabel wrote with co-authors Cyrus Schleifer (University of Oklahoma), Eman Abdelhadi (University of Chicago), and Samuel Perry (University of Oklahoma). However, “pockets of Americans, specifically the most religiously active Americans, continue to have more gender-polarized orientations toward their employment.”

The Religious Work Ethic and the Spirit of Patriarchy: Religiosity and the Gender Gap in Working for Its Own Sake, 1977 to 2018,” was published in Sociological Science on March 9.

“Gender gaps in paid employment have shrunk but not closed in recent decades,” Schnabel said. “Women’s work remains more precarious than men’s, especially when personal and societal disruptions – such as the birth of a child, a sick family member or a pandemic – create increased need for care work.”

For the study, the researchers analyzed answers to “the lottery question” on the General Social Survey, 1977 to 2018, which asks: “If you were to get enough money to live as comfortably as you would like for the rest of your life, would you continue to work or would you stop working?”

“This measure…has been used as a proxy for work ethic and/or centrality of work in one’s life going back to the 1950s,” the researchers wrote. The question is concrete and personal, asking respondents to consider their preferences for their own lives rather than abstract attitudes about what is acceptable for other people.

The researchers found that in the United States, the majority of people say they would keep working even if they did not need to. Moreover, due to declining desire to work among men and rising desire among women, the gender gap is closing; in fact, there is little gender difference except for pockets of Americans, particularly the very religious.

“There tends to be a religious work ethic in the United States,” Schnabel said, adding that the study’s title is a play on Max Weber’s classic book “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” “What we find is that in the U.S., among men, the more you’re involved in religious communities, the more committed to work you tend to be. But this varies by gender.”

Among the very religious, Schabel said, it’s still the case that women are expected to be concerned about the family and idealize motherhood as a woman's highest calling; in this setting a woman is more likely to get a job out of financial necessity, not because it’s an intrinsically good thing to do.

However, “even though the most religious Americans do have this continuing gap, where women don’t want to work as much as men do, they are changing, too,” Schnabel said. “If you extend the trend lines out, eventually they will converge.”      

Some work-related gender gaps are resistant to closing all the way, Schnabel said, including the gender pay gap and the workforce participation gap. Statistics show that in America, when families face crises or when a child or elder needs care, women more often are the ones to leave the workforce.

This study doesn’t explain these gender gaps, but it narrows the possibilities for why they persist.

“We’re not explaining the stalled gender revolution, but we are showing that preferences aren’t the reason for it,” he said. “Based on this survey question, it doesn’t seem women don’t want to work. Rather, it seems that structural and cultural factors put up barriers to women who do want to work.”

Read the story in the Cornell Chronicle.

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