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Gender Roles and Technological Progress

Tue, October 24, 2006 | BRB 1.118

5:00 PM - 6:30 PM

The twentieth century was marked by a profound change in women's economic and
social role. Labor force participation of married women increased from less than 6%
in 1900 to 62% in 2000 and the increase was particularly intense for women with
young children. We argue that the advancement in medical technologies related to
motherhood played a critical rolein this process. In particular, the development and
commercialization of humanized infant formula reduced mothers' comparative
advantage in the nurturing of infants, by providing an effective breast milk
substitute. This enabled mothers to reduce the time required for infant care and
increase their participation in the labor force, thus providing the incentive to invest
in labor market skills, which in turn reduced their earnings differential with respect
to men.
To explore this hypothesis, we first provide evidence on the introduction,
commercialization and diffusion of various forms of infant formula starting from the
beginning of the twentieth century. We construct a price series for infant formula,
using advertisements from historical newspapers and we document the dramatic
change in infant feeding practices during this period.
While in the 1930's, 80% of infants were breast fed at birth, only less than 25% were
in 1970. These developments in infant feeding parallell the introduction of new time
saving durable goods that changed other aspects of home production, as argued by
Greenwood, Seshadri and Yorugoklu (2005). We then develop a model that relates
the advancement in infant feeding, as well as, general household technologies, to
women's labor force participation, home hours and gender earnings differentials.
Households choose whether to adopt the new technologies, and individuals choose
whether to participate in the labor force. We find that there is a strong
complementary in the adoption of new infant feeding practices, general
household technologies and labor force participation of married women. If women
must breastfeed, the required time spent in this activity reduces their earnings
potential relative to men and therefore the opportunity cost of home hours for
women. This implies that women also devote more time to the production of
general household goods, and discourages female participation in market work. We
run experiments to evaluate the role of new infant feeding practices and
improvements in general household technologies in isolation. We find that
improvements in medical technologies that reduce mothers' required time for infant
care are a necessary pre-condition for the rise in labor force participation of married
women with young children.

The paper can be found on this link:

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