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How Sexism Follows Women From Cradle to Workplace

White women born in parts of the United States where sexist attitudes are more prevalent grow up to earn less and to work less than women born elsewhere, relative to men born in those same states, new economic research shows.

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Jim Tankersley
, New York Times

White women born in parts of the United States where sexist attitudes are more prevalent grow up to earn less and to work less than women born elsewhere, relative to men born in those same states, new economic research shows.

That impact on career and salary continues even if those women move to less sexist areas as adults, a finding that suggests the beliefs a woman grows up with can shape her future behavior in a way that affects her career and salary.

The research, which will be released as a working paper Monday from the economists Kerwin Kofi Charles of the University of Chicago, Jonathan Guryan of Northwestern University and Jessica Pan of National University of Singapore, highlights a continued divergence across the United States in social attitudes about the role of women in the workforce. It shows how much location — where a woman is born and where she chooses to live as an adult — matters for her work and pay.

Perhaps most strikingly, the study finds that a woman’s lifelong earnings and how much she works are influenced by the levels of sexism in the state where she was born. A woman born in the Deep South is likely to face a much wider economic gender gap than a woman born on the Pacific Coast, the research shows, even if both women move to New York as adults.

“That’s the first shocking thing,” said Charles, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, “just how large and persistent the differences are.”

To make sure they were focusing only on gender, and not racial, discrimination, the researchers studied only white adults. While the researchers expect that the same gender gaps apply to other demographics, they were unsure how much of the disparity could be attributed to racial — versus gender — discrimination.

The economists drew upon decades of statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau and the General Social Survey, a poll that repeats questions over time and documents changing American attitudes on a wide range of issues.

The researchers tracked responses to eight questions about the role of women in society, including the degree to which Americans agreed that “Women should take care of running their home and leave running the country up to men” and “It is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and women take care of the home and family.” The more a respondent agreed that women should not work outside the home or participate in politics, or could not effectively juggle career and family responsibilities, the more “sexist” the researchers judged the answers to be.

Levels of sexism varied widely by state. They have declined across the board over time, but the differences between states have persisted. The researchers found that sexist attitudes are most prevalent in the Southeast and least prevalent on the West Coast. The Midwest varies: Ohio has relatively low levels of sexism, while neighboring Indiana is relatively high.

The census data on the labor market show a persistent gap in what white men and women earn and how much they participate in the labor force, though that gap has narrowed over time. But that gender gap varies by state — and it’s that variation that helped the researchers isolate the effects of sexism, by place.

The researchers looked at men and women who were born in the same state and then moved to the same state, like North Carolinians who moved to New York, or Texans who moved to Colorado. They found that the gap in wages and employment between men and women in those groups was bigger for those who were born in states with higher levels of sexism.

They also found that, compared with women around them who were born elsewhere, the women born in more “sexist” places marry and have their first child “at appreciably younger ages.” Another recent paper, in which Pan was also one of the writers, found a sharp decline in employment for women after their first child is born, and also that women’s attitudes toward gender roles grow more traditional after a birth.

Charles, Guryan and Pan found that the results held even when controlling for age, education and migration patterns, which is to say, Americans historically tend to move to states close to their state of birth as adults, if they move at all.

The research cannot say for certain why those differences persist. The economists say that women appear to internalize social norms when they are young on issues such as when to have children, what tasks are appropriate for women in the workforce or even how much society values the work of women.

Those traits could, in turn, affect a woman’s willingness to bargain for higher wages. “We know that whatever it is, it must be something of a product of where they’re from, and continues to affect them now,” Charles said. “A notable example here might be the willingness to ask for raises, or the willingness to confront a manager over a raise that was too small. A woman imbued with her value in the marketplace is likely to reject an insufficient raise.” Those internalized norms appear to have affected a young woman named Nicole, who grew up in Indiana, earned a business degree and a master’s in information systems, and left her home state to build a career. Nicole, who asked that her last name and current employer not be identified, said she has struggled with the assertiveness needed to ask for a raise or a higher starting salary.

By the time she started as a consultant at a large accounting firm, some of her high school friends were married, ready for children, working part time or not at all. Nicole said she was working harder than many of her colleagues and wondering why she earned less than they did. “Sometimes, my male job recruiter friends are like, ‘Why don’t you just ask? When someone offers you a job, they expect you to negotiate,'” she said. “Whereas my friends and I, we’re just happy to have job offers. It didn’t cross my mind that you negotiate.”

Internalizing a culture that does not value women working outside the home, or that makes a woman’s role as a mother a priority, could also discourage women from working longer and less flexible hours. The Harvard University economist Claudia Goldin has found that much of the gender gap in pay comes from differences within occupations, such as law and medicine, where men are rewarded for their disproportionate willingness to work long hours and agree to be on call when they are off duty. Birthplace matters no matter where women move as adults. But where they settle matters, too, the research shows.

Nicole, for example, went to work in a large Southern city, where she quickly learned she needed to study college football every weekend just to participate in company discussions on Monday. Male colleagues expected her to take notes in meetings, even though she held a leadership position, she said. Male clients would interrupt her, or wouldn’t look her in the eye.

Her experience tracks with the study’s findings that the sexism in the places where women live and work as adults affects them — but those effects are divided by gender.

Women are more likely to marry and have children early when they are surrounded by other women who hold more “sexist” views on the appropriateness of women working outside the home, the study shows; the views of men don’t seem to matter to that calculation. When it comes to employment and wages, though, women don’t seem to be affected by the views of other women around them.

But when the men around them are more sexist, women work less, and they earn less — an effect the researchers ascribed to old-fashioned discrimination.

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