Work-Life-Child Balance in 2017: 5 Myths Busted

It is 9:25pm and The Husband and I can sit down for dinner. Finally. After I spent two and a half hours bathing and feeding three under 6 year olds. The eldest two fell asleep at 8pm, which is a miracle as they usually tend to hop around until after 9. But the little one, despite his only eleven months, struggled to calm down. It took another one and a half hours of me limbo dancing with him in a baby sling until he eventually dozed off. And in between back rubs and sandwich folding, I checked on various urgent work email trails. (I usually take care to answer only the most important ones, because, under the circumstances, I may end up sounding less composed than I actually am.)

During the same time, The Husband was trekking through Rodman’s and Aldi chasing some vital ingredients to reconstruct a German Christmas in America. (Let me take a sip before I continue. I have just been handed a Cabernet with a blue cheese and fig jam tartine on the side. Hm. Senses slowly coming back.)

How do people do this? I mean, spending quality time with your kids while earning the means to do so and still getting enough sleep to ward off premature dementia? How are you supposed to do it? – The question keeps occupying researchers and I am not sure it is solved yet. Still, my recent dive into the research rewarded me with busting a few myths:

Myth #1: You need to spend a maximum of time with your kids

No. In fact, the quantity of time is irrelevant for children age 3 to 11 as long as it does not drop below the minimum of about 6 hours per week, according to this new large-scale study. Frankly, 6 hours is nothing, like just getting dressed and one meal together six days a week. Or, one weekend afternoon and nothing else. Kids that have this much of parent time, or the double of it, fare just the same in terms of achievement, behavior and emotional well-being.

So there. What have we been stressing about? Mothers in 2016 spend on average 14 hours with their children per week, while mostly, half of it would do. The only group of children for whom more time makes a difference are those that are about to grow out of childhood: for adolescents, 12 years+, more parental time makes a difference in terms of better behavior.

The quality always matters though. The time you spend together should be interactive. If you spend it doing nothing or watching TV, it will be detrimental.  – On the other hand, unstructured alone time is good for children; it has been shown to build executive skills. 

Myth #2: It doesn’t matter if parents sleep less when they have kids

Oh, it does. If parents are stressed and sleep-deprived, parent time will be harmful for children, Milkie’s study found out. As a parent, you should see to your own sleep at least as much as to your children’s sleep. Let’s be realistic, this is unfeasible without enlisting outside help from time to time, as well as taking turns with your spouse in getting up at night and a flexible employer who understands that on some days, your full brain at work at 10:30am is better than half of it at 8:30am.

It’s a tough nut to crack, but I understand it a bit like the oxygen mask in planes: you must put on your own mask first, if you want to have a decent chance at helping your child.

Myth #3: It is a good idea for a mother to give up her job to have more time for children

Better not. Two things that do more than parental time for the future success of a child, according to the above study and others, is family income and a mother’s educational level. Higher income and higher maternal education are always good. Milkie also finds that mothers’ work hours don’t matter much at all.

So, both spouses working is a good thing. I can imagine some non-linear reasoning here though, with the impact of dual earning being particularly strong at lower income levels and less so above a certain level. Further studies should look into this.

Myth #4: Only your kids’ fun matters, your own doesn’t

Actually, your own fun is vital. A study on 6500 children and their fathers published in the British Medical Journal found that the amount of fun fathers had while parenting was much more important than the time they were involved. Fun fathers were 28% less likely to have children with behavior problems.

“The researchers discovered that how secure the fathers felt about their role and their partner, and how emotionally connected they were with their children, were more important in reducing the likelihood of behavioural problems than the time they put in to childcare.”

Myth #5: We want to keep our kids supervised because of the risks they are exposed to.

Nope. We supervise them closely because we find it immoral to do otherwise. It has nothing to do with the actual risks the kids face. As Ashley Thomas and her team carefully researched with an experiment, our brain muddles up the two, morals and risk perception. The less morally acceptable we find the reason why a child is left alone, the more at risk we believe the child is.

This is not to say that there are no risks out there. I am not in the camp of ‘let the kids be in the street alone all day, like it used to be’. Yes, it used to be the case, and I had collected two concussions by age 6, while my 6 year old today has never had one. But we do need to take a step back and realize our risk perceptions are out of whack. Kids need enough unsupervised freedom to develop their own life skills.

So they can make their own blue cheese and fig jam tartines and get themselves to bed. For example. Eventually. Bottom line, parents need to let themselves off the hook a bit more, take license to live, and breathe and have fun, and stress a bit less in 2017.

About that Pay Gap….The Dark Side

I wrote previously about the gender pay gap, the difference of women’s and men’s earnings, here.

That’s enough of a dark side you may think. But trust me, it gets darker.

Admittedly, the current discussion of That Pay Gap in the media is taking place largely among fairly powerful women; women who earn well enough to sustain themselves and more. The headline grabbing lawsuits on that matter usually concern women in, or just one step away from, executive leadership in profitable corporations.

What does the situation look like at the margin of empowerment, and, at the margin of poverty? To start, let’s think about a fundamental difference between men and women that is a bit uncomfortable to consider: women, also very poor women, always have a currency to pay in. There is always one thing they can offer and it’s usually worth money. Do you see where I am going? There is a huge market out there for female straight sex, and such a market does not exist for male straight sex. I am not saying this is an advantage – right now in the world it does not play out as one.

This paper by Damien de Walque and others shows that conditional cash transfers can get men and women to lead healthier sex lives and reduce their risk of contracting HIV substantially. Once the cash transfer is taken away, the behavior change persists among men but not among women.

Ouch.

Here is what happens: when the money is lacking, women need to pay with sex. Riskier sex pays better. This is not a lifestyle choice; it is a survival necessity. Men cannot do this, on the one hand; and do not need to do it on the other: they likely earn more than women anyway.

At the margin of empowerment, the gender pay gap forces women to be more available for sex.

Three Theories About That Pay Gap

It is no news. Women, the world over, earn less than men. Some of the famous gender pay gap is due to women’s professional choices, and to baby breaks. But this paper by Gillian Paull shows that, even when you carefully account for baby breaks, education and sector (and more), there still is a gap left.

What. The heck. Is That Gap??

Theory Number 1

Women don’t negotiate – at all, or don’t negotiate well. Employers know this, and rationally, take advantage of it by paying less than they would to a man (who can be expected to negotiate). A lot of popular books look into this, and its potential remedies, like Know Your Value by Mika.

I am sure this explains part of it, but not all. How about

Theory Number 2

Women are not allowed to signal success. This one is my favorite, and the one of which I seem to have most anecdotal evidence. Time and again I see men recount their successes. Not offensively so, but certainly confidently, and always attributing success to their own achievements. Never, really never, have I seen a man in the workplace attribute his success to luck or fate. When women signal their own success, it provokes smirks, mockery, or criticism. Cohorts of middle management feel entitled if not right-out divinely called to chip away at that evil woman’s assertiveness.

The women in my sample have ended up with one of three results: (i) They stop signaling. Their assertiveness leaves them never to return, and they go on producing successes no one ever attributes to them. This is the most frequent outcome, which naturally also results in lower wages. (ii) They withdraw and leave jobs until they find an environment that is fairer in its assessment, or they create it themselves in a start-up. This is somewhat rarer and can take a long time. And the rarest outcome is that (iii) women stay where they are, put their chin up and face the criticism right on. Those that are successful with it sometimes have an older male supportive colleague that negotiates their fate like an old-testament dad would the future of his daughter.

Some women have looked through the dynamics of i-iii and made a conscious effort to stay at iii. Several of them are very senior.

Theory Number 3

Women do not know their value. And they don’t know that they don’t know it. The most striking example I read about is this one. In the world of fashion and fast cars, models and women with similar exceptional beauty attend VIP parties without charging for their presence, while the VIP ‘friend’ that brokered their attendance gets a juicy commission.

Before I write myself into a complete rage, let’s spend that energy on a solution.

# 1 Remedy

Wake up, and sisterize. What about the following strategy, ladies: (i) realize that in many situations you are not paid (enough) when you should be, (ii) act in solidarity with each other and enlist as many friends as possible when making your claim for higher pay. The good old fashioned trade unions have been shown to work some way towards reducing gender pay gaps. But even without formal unionization, an informal united front of women (let’s call it sisterization) that share information and claim payment at value should go a long way.

This takes the humble realization that we are replaceable. Whenever we are not, we can negotiate as monopolists. But when we are, it takes a sisterhood.

Power, Commitment and Dating: 5 Lessons from Jean Tirole

Jean Tirole recently received the prize in memory of Alfred Nobel for Economics, for his work on firms’ market power. Understanding how his sharp insights translate into the world of dating took me considerable mulling over, although it now feels obvious upon hindsight.

You probably all remember a beau that casually dated many women at once, “stringing them along” without making up his mind on who he should become exclusive with. Or a woman that nourished many admirers’ hopes for a long time, without settling with any one, but also without letting any one of them pursue another woman. Such is the nature of power in the dating market. And Tirole’s insights are highly relevant (and make for wicked strategies, actually).

Here are five key lessons:

1. People with power in the dating market can effectively ward off competitors. For a description of what that might look like, see above, and dig in your high school memories.

2. You can tell commitments from non-commitments, even in a powerful person. True commitments are actions that are hard to reverse. For example, if she moves house to be near you, that would be a commitment. As would be a publicly announced engagement, or, of course, marriage. Declaring the relationship exclusive to close friends, and to any admirers or former dates probably also counts. However, spending time with you, being intimate, and/or being generous with you, is no commitment. It can be stopped at will.

3. Dating market power is hard to maintain. Warding off a competitor is costly; it will take time and effort to string along that one woman that is already turning her head towards someone else, or that one admirer that is about to give up.

4. But power can be broken. If put under the right kind of pressure, the monopolist beau or belle will behave as if powerless. If the above described effort to maintain power is altogether more painful than losing that person from one’s circle of influence so to speak, then the powerful dater will let his subject move on. So the trick is to push the boundaries: if you are the competitor, i.e. the dating market entrant that would like to snatch one worthy date from the circle around the beau, just keep the lady of your intentions as busy and entertained as you can. It needn’t be with dates; if you have other avenues to meet her or engage her along her interests, even without you being involved (sports clubs, work, volunteering, your friends etc), do so. Make sure the monopolist beau will have a hard time keeping up (or finding spare minutes in her calendar). If she is not his favorite, he will let go.

5. Building up that kind of dating power from scratch can be a ton of work. Obtaining uniqueness in the dating world, to the extent that one can exercise market power, is comparable to  investing until securing a patent. What could those investments look like in the dating world? Building up a network, organizing social events, fun activities and gatherings, attracting and hosting interesting conversations…are all activities that enhance popularity and thereby dating power. It might also help to hit the gym three times a week until in ship shape. In some cases Miss or Mr monopolist may have a huge advantage on these accounts; too huge for anyone to follow. If a potential follower fails to realize (aka be impressed by) the size of the task, a stiff competition can ensue and the leader effectively be leapfrogged. Ha!

No guarantees when you apply any of this in real life…

Stop Worrying About The Kilos: Shapely Women, These Are Your Times!

Are you worried about those thighs? Does your bum look big in that? Well, if yes, rejoice.

A British study has recently found that men under pressure prefer shapely women. The researchers split a group of about 80 men randomly into two groups of about forty participants.  (The fact that the split was ‘random’, e.g. by lottery, is important. This means that each man had an equal chance of ending up in either group. And that the groups can be expected to be fairly similar after the split; similar in things you can see (like height, weight..) and and things you cannot see (like motivation, mood..). This is why true economists lurrve this type of experiment. But I digress…)

One group was asked to solve maths puzzles in front of a critical jury (howzat for being put under pressure), the other didn’t have to do anything. Both groups were then, independently, asked to rank pictures of women for attractiveness.

And lo and behold, the stressed out men preferred heavier built women. (The relaxed men preferred slightly underweight women.) Men under pressure need love handles. The researchers think this is because weight signals age and maturity and stressed men would appreciate the help of a mature partner. Yours truly thinks men also unconsciously know that those thighs come in handy in times of hunger or other economic distress.

This is consistent with another trend: in times of economic crises, the centrefolds in Playboy show heavier and older women than in times of growth. In economic drought, heavier women are hot, thinner women are not.

So, to the extent that the world is still recovering from the recent depression (which it is), your type, darling, sets the trend. 

 

The Price of Naptime

You know what’s the best time of the day? If you are a parent of young children that is. Naptime. Those 1-2 hours in the afternoon they nod off and let you be. One good hour for mum and dad to do what they want, alone or, together. Read a book, write a blog, engage in a passionate conversation. Essential. Restoring. For body, mind, soul – and sanity.

Of course, this one hour is only worth so much because the other hours of the day are filled with toddlers’ laughter, their crazy and creative ideas, needs, energy and wisdom. It is a clear case of diminishing returns. Given that this is one hour only, it is valued highly. One hour more would still be fun, two hours more (of productive solitude) would be helpful, but three kid free leisure hours would probably max out the fun, and any further minute would be boring and lonely.

Ok, just wanted to quickly get this message out before a little chocolate stained finger tries out my keyboard, as the soft steps on the corridor seem to announce…

 

Dating in the Times of Piketty – part II

This is the second part of our musings on dating in a more unequal world. As we discussed in part I, we have a few relevant case studies, both historic (feudal Europe) and contemporary (countries with largely Western culture and relatively high inequality, say parts of Latin America). Still, both sets of cases do not fully reflect the situation developed Western nations are gliding into according to Piketty.

Let’s see what is different and what that means for us.
Different from feudal Europe:

  1. Agency of women. In contrast to Jane Austen’s times, women now have voting rights, full property rights, can marry and divorce as men can, and are active in politics and business. The first born daughter may well end up running the family business. (No need to smash the entail, Lord Grantham.) We also know that women, on average, tend to be more left leaning in politics than men. Summing up, this means on the one hand, that hypergamy will likely be an attractive option for both genders (see part I) and courtship patterns may change. Not only will we see groomed young women queuing and trying to prove their virtues to the Mr Darcys, we will also see groomed young men queuing and trying to prove their virtues to, say, Paris Hilton. On the other hand, women’s agency has shifted the political center to the left. This makes it more likely that the bottom 99 percent will oppose an unequal world and vote for a politician that can offer a credible route out of it. Finally, it will also mean that men and women overall have more occasion to meet and mix, at university and work, say.
  2. Wealth is mostly represented by capital, not land. Capital can grow; land only up to a limit. So overall, social mobility in Piketty-land should not be quite as restricted as in Austen-land.
  3. Internet, social media. Any return to inequality will be well documented and well known. The fact that Piketty stirred up the world in so short a time, even the fact that I can write and share this very blog, are witnesses to this change. The average people can see the rich people’s life style more easily, more completely and can choose to covet or to criticize it. Facebook is not exactly a paragon nexus of social mobility, but certainly more so than an Austenian ballroom. The fact that average yours truly is facebook friend with some royalty, as well as heir/esses gives reason for hope. Mrs Bennet’s duty is still valid, but got a little easier. The wealthy networks are more infiltratable.

Different from both feudal Europe and quasi-feudal contemporaries:

  1. Smaller families. This should, on average, make it a bit more difficult to spread inherited capital widely. There are simply fewer heirs and heiresses to marry off.
  2. Longevity. The overall life length is of relatively little interest. What matters is the length of productive life, which seems to expand only slowly or not at all. A longer productive life would give more opportunity to run business risks and thereby accumulate wealth; more opportunity for social mobility. Still, longevity alone already means a longer time span in which heirs need to stand on their own two feet, before cashing in.

Despite all these differences, our main prediction from part I remains. Marriage will be more important a means to access wealth than it is now. And wealth will therefore play a larger part in choosing our partner. The downside is, obviously, that loveless marriages are likely to become, once again, a distinct and accepted possibility.

World Women’s Day: 5 Things That Happen When Women Have the Upper Hand In Dating

How can we find out what happens when women have the upper hand in dating? Does it ever happen? And what if? – One situation where women certainly have bargaining power is when men outnumber women. A high ratio of men to women means men compete for women and women can choose.

There are several situations where we find a high gender ratio: some countries (last week we discussed China), some immigrant communities, social groups and others.  Economists have studied several of these and have found 5 outcomes in the relationship world when women have the upper hand.

  1. There are more marriages. Groups where men outnumber women see their marriage rates go up, compared to groups with even gender ratios.
  2. Men earn more. As men have to make an effort to gain an edge over potential competitors for women, one area they excel in is income.
  3. Women tend to work less. Overall, fewer women choose to work outside the home. This suggests that, at least in the communities studied, many women had the latent wish to be homemakers.
  4. Couples earn more. Women, who choose to work, earn more on average than working women in gender-even societies. Combined with point 3, this means that women won’t get up for less than a certain salary any more.
  5. Children born in this environment are better off. After all the above, it’s an empirical fact that in societies where men compete for women, parents of young children earn more. Children grow up in wealthier households than in societies where women have less bargaining power.

In other words, based on robust evidence: bargaining power for women is a pretty good thing, for about everyone.

5 Trends in Sexual Mores and What They Mean

The Economist recently reported about shifts in sexual mores in Britain, but interestingly left out almost all economic interpretation and especially outlook. Let’s make up for it here.

  1. Both men and women are strongly and increasingly intolerant of marital infidelity. Wonderful. The boundary around the joint marital territory, and around the (property) rights acquired by marriage has just become firmer. In future, you will be more secure in your marriage and can trustfully invest in it.  Your Economist predicts (continuation in the) increase in marriage rates, and an increased willingness of spouses to give up things when they get married.
  2. Sexually transmitted infections do no longer rise among those below 24. The sharpest fall is among teenagers. (Teenage pregnancy has not been so rare since 1969.) The young crowd has gotten an updated message: your responsibility is no longer covered, no pun intended, by using a condom alone. There are a lot of nasty things you can catch in spite of using one. Your Economist predicts a continuation of this trend until teenage pregnancy is virtually unmeasurable.
  3. STI do increase in all older age groups. Well, the older crowd is still living the old message: use a condom and all is fine. A pity the article does not say which STI’s increase. Your Economist guesses it’s Syphilis, Chlamydia, Herpes and any other little bug that laughs at condoms. Not HIV. Your Economist predicts that the older crowd will eventually either learn from the young crowd or read the news more intently (like this article) and then also embark on a healthier lifestyle.
  4. Couples have slightly less sex (now than in 2000). The Economist quotes scientists that blame the recession. Your Economist blames the on-going rise in labor productivity. People work harder, whether in the private or public sectors. This is especially true in countries with regressive demographics. My retired uncle complains he can no longer have drinks with his former colleagues because ‘what three people used to do is now being done by one’. I’m sure the same colleagues’ spouses have similar issues of finding time and leisure.
  5. Tolerance for diversity (especially gay relationships) has increased. Well, knowledge has increased. Most people know gay people, and know when people are gay. There is no longer a need to hide or mislabel the relationship. Openness begets openness in what seems an exponential relationship. And personal evidence is too strong an antidote for myths.

Are You The Odd Woman (or Man) Out? – 5 Things to Get You Into The Game

Clara is a beautiful woman of 38 years, well above average in looks, intelligence and success. With her golden brown hair and small round nose she looks kind of seasonal now – a bit angelic. Still, she is without a partner and in her social circles, feels like the odd woman out. Basically all men her age are partnered and the very few, who are not, objectively do not meet Clara’s attractiveness on any scale.  It feels like a matching game has been played and she was left out.

If Clara looks around her workplace and friends she will see that there is indeed a surplus of single women in her age range. (She works in a prestigious NGO.) This of course puts her at a disadvantage: if she has to compete with women for fewer available men, she will have to trade below par, or, in plain terms, lower her expectations below what she could get in a more gender balanced environment.

Therefore recommendation number 1 for Clara:

  1. Meet more people. Widen your circle of friends: you can re-discover a forgotten hobby, learn a sport you always wanted to – or start any new activity you are interested in to meet new people who are likely to become friends. More precisely:
  2. Seek out activities where the opposite gender is numerous. So, as a woman check out sports, outdoors, computer related hobbies and about everything that involves speed: car racing, speed boats and space tourism. (Examples courtesy of my husband.) As a man, seek out literature, the arts, yoga, zumba, prancercise and philanthropy. For example. Biking and running groups should work for both genders. And if you are really serious about settling down in the near future:
  3. Mind your values. In addition to the activities that just widen your circle, make sure to include some that foster values that are dear to you. Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and Temples should have activities for singles. Causes like the environment, fair trade, mentoring of at risk youth can also help find and bond with kindred spirits.
  4. Focus on the essential. Arm yourself with a checklist of values and characteristics your partner would need to embody. I recommend between 3 and 8 – neither too few nor too many. You need to keep a mental note of these criteria with you at all times. People that don’t meet the list are out and have no claim on your (dating-) attention and time.
  5. Your dating objective first. If you are past 35 and unmatched, odds are that you gave generously of your time and attention to others, based on their need; maybe your family of origin, your work, or friends you felt needed you. These are all worthy claimants, but it’s time to re-focus on your own objectives. Your time and attention are first of all your own and you can employ them where you feel they best help you. (In other words: the earlier you learn to say No, the earlier you will say Yes to the right person.)