Descriptive stereotypes such as “girls are not good at mathematics” or prescriptive stereotypes, that is, fixed views about women’s societal roles, can explain the persistent gender gap in mathematics. Stereotypes lower girls’ beliefs, expectations, and incentives to put forth effort, and can constrain girls’ choices in male-dominated high-paying careers that are math-intensive and that require strong math skills. This gap slows progress toward gender equality in the labor market and hinders productivity and economic growth. Policy interventions to alleviate the negative impacts of descriptive stereotypes aim to prevent girls from internalizing socially constructed behaviors aligned with prevalent gender stereotypes regarding the innate mathematical abilities of boys and girls. Boosting girls’ confidence in their math skills includes introducing them to female role models, such as women math teachers, using gender-neutral language, and providing textbooks and other teaching materials that challenge gender stereotypes. A different set of policies focuses on altering the environment in which girls learn, rather than modifying their beliefs. By adjusting the testing methods (such as reducing the level of competition) or adapting the instructional approach to better align with the learning style of girls, it is possible to create an environment that enables more girls to achieve their maximum potential and to accurately assess their math abilities and interests, rather than simply their test-taking or classroom performance. However, interventions that aim to modify the beliefs and attitudes of girls and women ex post, as well as those that seek to alter the environment, may not work in the long term because they reinforce preexisting stereotypes and operate within the constraints of those stereotypes. For instance, while modifying the testing environment may result in higher grades for girls, it may not necessarily alter the perception that girls are incapable of excelling in math. In some cases, these interventions may even have negative consequences. Encouraging girls to “lean in” and behave like boys, for example, can lead to unequal, unjust, and inefficient outcomes because the benefits (economic returns) of doing so are lower or even negative for girls in light of existing gender stereotypes. One popular and affordable approach to combating gender stereotypes involves addressing (unconscious) biases among teachers, parents, and peers through initiatives such as unconscious bias training and self-reflection on biases. The underlying premise is that by increasing awareness of their own (unconscious) biases, individuals will engage their more conscious, non-gender-stereotypical thinking processes. However, such behavioral interventions can sometimes have unintended consequences and result in backlash, and their effectiveness may vary significantly depending on the context, so that their external validity is often called into question. The recognition of the adaptable nature of both conscious and unconscious stereotypes has led to progress in economics, with the development of social learning and information-based theories. Interventions resulting from these models can effectively counteract prescriptive stereotypes that limit girls’ education to certain fields based on societal expectations of gender roles. However, prescriptive gender stereotypes are often based on biased beliefs about the innate abilities of girls and women. Overcoming deeply ingrained descriptive stereotypes about innate abilities of boys and girls is a fruitful avenue for future economics research and can help close the gender performance gap in mathematics.
Pilar Cuevas Ruiz, Ismael Sanz, and Almudena Sevilla
Lourenço S. Paz and Jennifer P. Poole
In recent decades, economic reforms and technological advances have profoundly altered the way employers do business—for instance, the nature of employment relationships, the skills firms demand, and the goods and services they produce and export. In many developing economies, these changes took place concurrently with a substantive rise in work outside of the formal economy. According to International Labour Organization estimates, informal employment can be as high as 88% of total employment in India, almost 50% in Brazil, and around 35% of employment in South Africa. Such informal employment is typically associated with lower wages, lower productivity, poorer working conditions, weaker employment protections, and fewer job benefits and amenities, and these informal workers are often poorer and more vulnerable than their counterparts in the formalized economy. Informal jobs are a consequence of labor market policies—like severance payments or social security contributions—that make the noncompliant informal job cheaper for the employer than a compliant formal job. Each model has a different benefit (or lack of punishment) for employing formal workers, and a distinct mechanism through which international trade shocks alter the benefit-cost of these types of jobs, which in turn results in a change in the informality share. The empirical literature concerning international trade and formality largely points to an unambiguous increase in informal employment in the aftermath of increased import competition. Interestingly, increased access to foreign markets, via liberalization of major trading partners, offers strongly positive implications for formal employment opportunities, decreasing informality. Such effects are moderated by the de facto enforcement of labor regulations. Expansions toward the formal economy and away from informal wage employment in the aftermath of increased access to foreign markets are smaller in strictly enforced areas of the country.
The first studies of higher education mismatch were motivated by a desire to understand the consequences of affirmative action policies, which lowered academic admission requirements for underrepresented students (typically disadvantaged racial and ethnic groups). This is the so-called “mismatch hypothesis,” which suggests that affirmative action may actually be harmful because it enables students to attend colleges they are academically underprepared for (“mismatched” to) while squeezing out students who would otherwise have enrolled and succeeded. At its heart, the study of mismatch is motivated by the proposed existence of complementarities between students and courses—the assumption that the highest-achieving students would get the most benefit from attending the highest-quality schools, and vice versa. Both undermatch—where high-attaining students attend low-quality universities—and overmatch—where low-attaining students attend high-quality universities—have been studied. Only a very small number of studies have been able to causally examine the impact of mismatch. A major challenge is that unobserved factors that influence individuals’ decisions to attend a particular college (and for the college to accept them) are likely to affect their likelihood of completion and their probability of doing well in the labor market. Several recent studies have made progress in this area, but the evidence on the impact of mismatch still shows mixed results, suggesting that more research is needed, for example, in studying different policy shocks (e.g., natural experiments such as the use of affirmative action bans, which create exogenous variation in mismatch) for students at different margins. There is also a need to expand the study of mismatch beyond the United Kingdom and the United States, which has been the main focus of studies so far, and also beyond higher education into other contexts such as further education colleges.
Helena Holmlund and Martin Nybom
Family background is a strong determinant of an individual’s educational achievement and labor market success. Using an economics framework, intergenerational persistence in socioeconomic status can be explained by a variety of factors, including parental investment behavior, credit constraints, and the degree of inequality in society. Genetic transmission from parents to children may also play a role. In addition, the skill formation process is governed by dynamics between different stages of a child’s life, such as complementarities between early and late investments or between informal and formal education. Education policy holds the promise of breaking the strong ties between family background and socioeconomic position by providing publicly accessible education for children of all backgrounds. However, the education system may also perpetuate social inequalities if well-off families are able to protect their children from downward mobility by, for example, moving to neighborhoods with high-quality schools and by providing networks that offer opportunities to succeed. However, a growing number of studies show that educational interventions can have long-lasting effects on students’ outcomes, in particular for disadvantaged students, and that they can be cost-effective. For example, reducing class size, increasing general education spending, tutoring, and improving teacher quality are policy levers that are shown to be successful in this regard. Shifting from selective to comprehensive school systems is also a policy that enhances equality of opportunity. While the evidence on credit constraints and their role for access to higher education is evolving, but still mostly U.S. focused and largely inconclusive, it is a key domain for shaping social mobility given the life-changing impacts that a university degree can have.
Daniel Aaronson, Jala Abner, Mark Borgschulte, and Bhashkar Mazumder
A newly digitized panel of county-level branch activity of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is used to describe the potential factors underlying the expansion of political participation in the American South, with a particular emphasis on the short period from the late 1930s through the 1940s. This period has long been recognized for its significant progress in reducing sizable racial gaps in labor market outcomes. But little work in economics has considered the role of political participation in shaping that progress. As the preeminent civil rights organization prior to the 1950s, the NAACP provides a natural lens in which to explore the expansion in political activism during this crucial period. Associative evidence suggests that a few potential channels could be especially worthy of future study, including the role of demographics, increased human capital, expansion in labor demand driven by wartime efforts, reduction in racial violence, latent political activism, and expansions in political and social networks, all of which have been highlighted in a variety of history and social science literatures. However, careful causal empirical work does not currently exist on these factors. Filling in this hole is important for providing compelling evidence on the origins of the 20th century’s most important U.S. political movement, as well as adding to a growing literature in political economy and development economics which examines the role that grassroots activism has played on economic growth and income inequality around the world.
Thomas Baudin, Bram De Rock, and Paula Gobbi
Household decisions are one of the key elements impacting many dimensions of any economy. For instance at the macro level, decisions regarding how much to save affect the economy’s investment possibilities or decisions regarding children’s education affect the overall level of human capital. Economists who study household behavior have almost solely focused on the understanding of nuclear families, i.e., parents living with their own children, childless couples, or singles. However, it is well documented that family types are heterogeneous across and within countries, both in the past and in present times. Among the different types, a classical distinction can be made between nuclear, stem, and complex households. Stem families are those allowing for three generations to live in a same household. Complex families allow for several married siblings to live together in a household. It is important to note that this is not a marginal phenomenon. For instance in China or India, the two most populous countries in the world, the majority of the population lives in either stem or complex families types. However, there is still a lot to understand about them. What are the driving factors leading individuals to form one type of family over another? Are these drivers economic or cultural? What are the intra-household dynamics of these families and how do they function? What are the implications of these differences for implementing effective family policies? The focus on nuclear families limits our capacity to answer these questions and to analyze the impact of institutional phenomena or public policies. More research to understand the determinants and functioning of other types of families hence matters both from an academic and a policy perspective.
Michael D. Kurtz, Karen Smith Conway, and Robert D. Mohr
The primary goals of food assistance programs are to alleviate child hunger and reduce food insecurity; if successful, such programs may have the added benefit of improving child academic outcomes (e.g., test scores, attendance, behavioral outcomes). Some U.S. government programs serve children in the home, such as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), others serve them at school, such as the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP), and still others fall in-between, such as the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP). Most empirical research seeking to identify the causal effect of such programs on child academic outcomes addresses the endogeneity of program participation with a reduced form, intent-to-treat approach. Specifically, such studies estimate the effect of a program’s availability, timing, or other specific feature on the academic outcomes of all potentially affected children. While findings of individual studies and interventions are mixed, some general conclusions emerge. First, increasing the availability of these programs typically has beneficial effects on relatively contemporaneous academic and behavioral outcomes. The magnitudes are modest but still likely pass cost-benefit criteria, even ignoring the fact that the primary objective of such programs is alleviating hunger, not improving academic outcomes. Less is known about the dynamics of the effects, for example, whether such effects are temporary boosts that dissipate or instead accumulate and grow over time. Likewise, the effects of recent innovations to these programs, such as breakfast in the classroom or increases in SNAP benefits to compensate for reduced time in school during the pandemic, yield less clear conclusions (the former) and/or have not been studied (the latter). Finally, many smaller programs that likely target the neediest children remain under- or un-examined. Unstudied government-provided programs include SFSP and CACFP. There are also a growing number of understudied programs provided primarily by charitable organizations. Emerging evidence suggests that one such program, Weekend Feeding or “Backpack” programs, confers substantial benefits. There, too, more work needs to be done, both to confirm these early findings and to explore recent innovations such as providing food pantries or “Kids’ Cafés” on school grounds. Especially in light of the uncertain fate of many pandemic-related program expansions and innovations, current empirical evidence establishes that the additional, beneficial spillover effects to academic outcomes—beyond the primary objective of alleviating food insecurity—deserve to be considered as well.
Rita Dias Pereira, Pietro Biroli, Titus Galama, Stephanie von Hinke, Hans van Kippersluis, Cornelius A. Rietveld, and Kevin Thom
Nature (one’s genes) and nurture (one’s environment) jointly contribute to the formation and evolution of health and human capital over the life cycle. This complex interplay between genes and environment can be estimated and quantified using genetic information readily available in a growing number of social science data sets. Using genetic data to improve our understanding of individual decision making, inequality, and to guide public policy is possible and promising, but requires a grounding in essential genetic terminology, knowledge of the literature in economics and social-science genetics, and a careful discussion of the policy implications and prospects of the use of genetic data in the social sciences and economics.
Serena Canaan, Anne Sophie Lassen, Philip Rosenbaum, and Herdis Steingrimsdottir
Labor market policies for expecting and new mothers emerged at the turn of the 19th century. The main motivation for these policies was to ensure the health of mothers and their newborn children. With increased female labor market participation, the focus has gradually shifted to the effects that parental leave policies have on women’s labor market outcomes and gender equality. Proponents of extending parental leave rights for mothers in terms of duration, benefits, and job protection have argued that this will support mothers’ labor market attachment and allow them to take time off from work after childbirth and then safely return to their pre-birth jobs. Others have noted that extended maternity leave can work as a double-edged sword for mothers: If young women are likely to spend months, or even years, on leave, employers are likely to take that into consideration when hiring and promoting their employees. These policies may therefore end up adversely affecting women’s labor market outcomes. This has led to an increased focus on activating fathers to take parental leave, and in 2019, the European Parliament approved a directive requiring member states to ensure at least 2 months of earmarked paternity leave. The literature on parental leave has proliferated during the past two decades. The increased number of studies on the topic has brought forth some consistent findings. First, the introduction of short maternity leave is beneficial for both maternal and child health and for mothers’ labor market outcomes. Second, there appear to be negligible benefits from a leave extending beyond 6 months in terms of health outcomes and children’s long-term outcomes. Furthermore, longer leaves have little, or even adverse, influence on mothers’ labor market outcomes. However, evidence suggests that there may be underlying heterogeneous effects from extended leave among different socioeconomic groups. The literature on the effect of earmarked paternity leave indicates that these policies are effective in increasing fathers’ leave-taking and involvement in child care. However, the evidence on the influence of paternity leave on gender equality in the labor market remains scarce and is somewhat mixed. Finally, recent studies that focus on the effect of parental leave policies for firms find that in general, firms are able to compensate for lost labor when their employees go on leave. However, if firms face constraints when replacing employees, it could negatively influence their performance.
When international trade increases, either because of a country’s lowering its trade barriers, a trade agreement, or productivity surges in a trade partner, the surge of imports can cause dislocation and lowered incomes for workers in the import-competing industry or the surrounding local economy. Trade economists long used static approaches to analyze these effects on workers, assuming either that workers can adjust instantly and costlessly, or (less often) that they cannot adjust at all. In practice, however, workers incur costs to adjust, and the adjustment takes time. An explosion of research, mostly since about 2008, has explored dynamic worker adjustment through change of industry, change of occupation, change of location, change of labor-force participation, adjustment to change in income, and change in marital status or family structure. Some of these studies estimate rich structural models of worker behavior, allowing for such factors as sector-specific or occupation-specific human capital to accrue over time, which can be imperfectly transferable across industries or occupations. Some allow for unobserved heterogeneity across workers, which creates substantial technical challenges. Some allow for life-cycle effects, where adjustment costs vary with age, and others allow adjustment costs to vary by gender. Others simplify the worker’s problem to embed it in a rich general equilibrium framework. Some key results include: (a) Switching either industry or occupation tends to be very costly; usually more than a year’s average wages on average. (b) Given that moving costs change over time and workers are able to time their moves, realized costs are much lower, but the result is gradual adjustment, with a move to a new steady state that typically takes several years. (c) Idiosyncratic shocks to moving costs are quantitatively important, so that otherwise-identical workers often are seen moving in opposite directions at the same time. These shocks create a large role for option value, so that even if real wages in an industry are permanently lowered by a trade shock, a worker initially in that industry can benefit. This softens or reverses estimates of worker losses from, for example, the China shock. (d) Switching costs vary greatly by occupation, and can be very different for blue-collar and white-collar workers, for young and old workers, and for men and women. (e) Simple theories suggest that a shock results in wage overshooting, where the gap in wages between highly affected industries and others opens up and then shrinks over time, but evidence from Brazil shows that at least in some cases the wage differentials widen over time. (f) Some workers adjust through family changes. Evidence from Denmark shows that some women workers hit by import shocks withdraw from the labor market at least temporarily to marry and have children, unlike men. Promising directions at the frontier include more work on longitudinal data; the role of capital adjustment; savings, risk aversion and the adjustment of trade deficits; responses in educational attainment; and much more exploration of the effects on family.