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Comparative Advantage And Gains From Trade, Feminazi Edition…

March 17th, 2010 · 27 Comments
Econ 101 · Gender

A few months back, decided to spin off its blog for female-centric issues, XX Factor, into its own standalone online publication. Well, that didn’t work so well, so XX Factor is back under the Slate hierarchy. I feel like I am beginning to understand why.

So, in case it wasn’t obvious, I am in fact female, so it stands to reason that I would be interested in a female-oriented publication. Unfortunately, the more I read, the more I feel like XX Factor is the online equivalent of The View, which gives me more nightmares than I care to think about. (Maybe I’m just bitter that the editor-in-chief didn’t accept my Facebook friend request, who knows.) I just sort of want to yell “women are awesome, and you’re totally doing it wrong” at these people. I think the final nail in the coffin of my readership was an article entitled “Salute Science for This One: Women Are Better at Ironing.” As you might expect, these lovely ladies are pissed off that studies show that women are, on average, better at domestic tasks than men:

The Daily Mail is basically the unintentional Onion of the U.K., so it shouldn’t be that surprising that “Ironing? Leave it to her: Women are far better at it that men” was a headline on the paper’s Web site this morning. According to a new study, women proved themselves innate domestic goddesses in a series of household tasks—threading a needle, making a bed, and ironing—beating their male counterparts in three-minute trials for each activity. But men, ever-handy specimens they are, fared better at reading maps, changing a tire, and pitching a tent.

Well then. (Insert dirty “pitching a tent” joke here.) I wasn’t aware that it was a bad thing to possess skills. It also brings me to an important economic point about the division of labor and gains from trade. Consider the following two concepts:

  • Absolute advantage refers to being more efficient at performing a task. To use the above example, women apparently have an absolute advantage in ironing because they can iron more shirts in three minutes than men can.
  • Comparative advantage, on the other hand, refers to being able to complete a task at a lower opportunity cost than others. In the above example, we have no idea who has a comparative advantage in ironing, since we weren’t told what else the two groups of people would have been capable of doing in their three minutes of ironing.

The author of the article seems to be upset that if scientists point out that women are better (read, have an absolute advantage) in ironing then they will somehow be forced or cajoled into doing all of the household chores, and this is only a small step away from being barefoot and pregnant, so clearly there is cause for concern. *smirk* However, in an efficient division of labor, it is comparative advantage that determines who should do what in order to maximize output, not absolute advantage. To illustrate this point, let’s put some hypothetical numbers to the article setup above. I’ll even be accurate and give women an absolute advantage in ironing and men an absolute advantage in changing a tire:

In this setup, it takes women 1 minute on average to iron a shirt while it takes men 3 minutes to do so, and it takes men 15 minutes to change a tire while it takes women 30 minutes to do so. However, it’s opportunity cost that is relevant when determining who should do what. In order to iron one shirt, the woman must take 1 minute away from changing a tire. During this minute, she could have changed 0.03 tires. Therefore, the opportunity cost for a woman of ironing one shirt is changing 0.03 tires. Similarly, in order to iron 1 shirt, the man must give up changing 0.2 tires. Therefore, the opportunity cost of ironing a shirt is lower for women than it is for men, and women have a comparative advantage in ironing. (Part of this comes from the fact that they are better at ironing and part comes from the fact that they are worse at changing tires.)

If we look at the opportunity cost of changing a tire, we see that women have to give up 30 shirts (30 minutes of work) in order to change a tire, whereas men only have to give up 5 shirts (15 minutes of work) to change a tire. Therefore, men have a comparative advantage in changing tires.

This matters because it is efficient for people to focus on the things that they have comparative advantage in. For example, if we had the woman change a tire for 3 minutes and a man iron for the minutes, we would get 1 shirt ironed and 0.1 tires changed. If we had them both split their time evenly, we would get 2 shirts ironed and 0.15 tires changed. In the latter scenario, we get more of both items! But we can do even better…if we have the woman iron for 3 minutes and the man change a tire for 3 minutes, we get 3 shirts ironed and 0.2 tires changed.

When one party has an absolute advantage in one thing and the other party has an absolute advantage in the other, the absolute absolute and comparative advantages coincide, and the parties should specialize in what they can do better than the other person in order to get the most efficient outcome. People historically seem to have figured this out, since for the most part you see more ironing done by women and more tire-changing done by men. (Though I must admit that I can’t iron, and my male best friend irons way more than I do. I bought a commercial-grade steamer to solve this problem, and I even used a hair straightener on a dress once.) This, however, doesn’t take into account whether or not people enjoy these tasks to the same degree- I mean, I wouldn’t say that if men also have an absolute advantage in video games that they should play Grand Theft Auto all day while the women iron like crazy. It’s completely reasonable to sacrifice a little efficiency for increased enjoyment.

Now I’ll get all girl power on you and ask “Well, what if the women are better at everything? Should they work all day while the men sit on the couch and eat Cheetos?” We can answer this question by modifying the setup a little:

Now women have an absolute advantage in both ironing and tire-changing. But, while it’s possible to have an absolute advantage in everything, it’s not possible to have a comparative advantage in everything. Based on these numbers, women have a comparative advantage in tire-changing and men have a comparative advantage in ironing. (You like how I did that?) Now, it’s efficient for the women to focus on changing tires and essentially outsource the ironing to the men. The reason is that, since the woman has to give up 0.2 tires for every shirt she irons, she should be willing to pay the man up to 0.2 tires to iron a shirt. (We’re back to the barter system here.) This is profitable for the dude, since he only has to give up 0.03 tires to iron a shirt, so he gives up 0.03 tires, irons a shirt, and gets paid up to 0.2 tires. That’s the gains from trade illustrated in a nutshell, since the trade can make both parties better off.

The almost laughably indignant article goes on to say the following:

The most incredible aspect of this article is realizing that MindLab International, presumably a scientific entity of some sort, brainstormed and concluded, “You know what needs some more very serious scientific speculation? Whether women are better than men at ironing!” and then spent money conducting “activity trials” to give validity to a very special tenet of the patriarchy: Women are born chore-doers. It couldn’t be because, oh, you know, ironing and sewing have been designated woman’s duties for the last century or anything; it must be because ladies’ brains were created specially to be excellent household runners. Thanks science!

I would argue that it’s helpful to know where the advantages lie so that we know where to direct resources for maximum efficiency rather than just rely on unfounded gender stereotypes. (Note that the generalization of the outcome is still a stereotype, it’s just no longer unfounded.)

If you haven’t had enough about comparative advantage and the gains from trade yet, here are a couple videos on the topic. The second one explores a setup similar to the second example here and answers the question of whether a professor should do his or her own typing.

Tags: Econ 101 · Gender

27 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Comparative Advantage And Gains From Trade, Feminazi Edition… « Daniel Joseph Smith // Mar 17, 2010 at 6:27 pm

    […] Comparative Advantage And Gains From Trade, Feminazi Edition… By Daniel J. Smith… […]

  • 2 Virginia // Mar 17, 2010 at 6:49 pm

    Setting aside economics for a moment…
    An article like that always makes me wonder just what is wrong with determining how one sex or the other fairs, in general, at a particular task? I have never understood why such a study causes such outrage, unless it’s the result that’s bothersome rather than the study itself.

    As an “empowered” woman of today, I can change tire, oil, alternators, run chainsaws, and can do many, many other traditionally mail tasks. My husband, although he certainly doesn’t fall under the “metro” category, is adept at many household tasks.

    In some cases, I am better at these things than my husband, and in others, he takes first place. What determines how we divide our labor has nothing to do with gender roles, or who’s more efficient at what. Although we don’t exactly sit down and calculate who should do what, it’s really all based on comparative advantage.

    I firmly believe that if more people understood economics, the world would be a happier place.

  • 3 econgirl // Mar 17, 2010 at 7:16 pm

    Amen sister. 🙂 It does, however, please me that it seems based on this evidence that gender roles evolved because women are better at certain things and men better at others as opposed to there being an unnatural determination about which tasks are “girl” jobs and which are “boy” jobs. On the other hand, I do wonder how much of what the study found is innate and how much is a result of conditioning. I assume that they found women who’ve never ironed and men who’ve never changed a tire, since otherwise the comparison would be a little silly. (Am going to track down the paper now.)

    I think you would enjoy one of my old posts on a not entirely unrelated topic:

    In fact, you’d probably find most of the posts in the “Gender” category interesting. I think a lot of the objection to the gender stereotypes when it comes to ability and profession stems from the fact that the things that women are good at or fields that they are prevalent in are seen as lower status than those that are typically male. That said, I don’t hear men complaining about being better at changing tires, and that’s not exactly the most glamorous of activities.

  • 4 Dan L // Mar 18, 2010 at 9:24 am

    I find much more fault with your reaction to the article than the article itself. You wrote:

    “It does, however, please me that it seems based on this evidence that gender roles evolved because women are better at certain things and men better at others as opposed to there being an unnatural determination about which tasks are “girl” jobs and which are “boy” jobs.”

    Uh, Little Miss “Correlation does not imply causality,” the study most certainly DOES NOT even suggest any such thing. Strangely, you do seem to to realize this since you follow up with the following sentence:

    “On the other hand, I do wonder how much of what the study found is innate and how much is a result of conditioning.”


    The basic fact is this: There is NO POSSIBLE WAY that women are “innately” better at ironing shirts. It just doesn’t make any sense. The “study,” of course, doesn’t touch this question. It only says that women are, on average, better at ironing shirts. Well, there’s a shocker! The people who spend more time ironing shirts are better at ironing shirts. WOW. Call the NSF.

    Guess that makes me a “feminazi.” (Btw, I can’t believe you would use this word. Not sarcastically or ironically, but actually the same way Rush uses it.)

    Last criticism. You say:

    “I would argue that it’s helpful to know where the advantages lie so that we know where to direct resources for maximum efficiency rather than just rely on unfounded gender stereotypes.”

    Um, please explain how the comparative advantages of men vs women in the *aggregate* has any bearing whatsoever on the division of labor in a *particular* household. Oh, right, it doesn’t.

  • 5 econgirl // Mar 18, 2010 at 1:02 pm

    I wish I could easily find the actual study, since, as I said, if it didn’t control for past experience at the tasks then it’s pretty useless. (For the purposes of my article, it doesn’t actually matter whether the study was useful, since my thesis is that just because women have an absolute advantage in something doesn’t necessarily mean that they should do all of it.) My sense of reason took a “nobody could be that dumb” approach and gave the researchers the benefit of the doubt. This quote from the Daily Mail, however, doesn’t make me at all hopeful on that matter:

    “The research was carried out for Gaviscon, the heartburn and indigestion treatment. Its advertising claims it is effective in three minutes.

    Stefan Gaa, Gaviscon marketing director, said: ‘We commissioned the research as were very aware of the importance of time when developing the Gaviscon range.'”

    Furthermore, I think that your first point is right, and I think that there was some meaning lost in the editing process. I actually only meant to suggest that it was possible, not conclude anything. (I will even change the wording accordingly for you.) If you wanted to argue more convincingly against my assertion (which was merely a minor side point), you could point out that women were better at getting discounts (i.e. haggling), but at least from what I’ve seen it is the men who typically handle this activity. It’s unclear, though, whether women are pushed out of the way where this activity is concerned or whether they just don’t like doing it even though they are better at it.

    That said, I don’t understand how you can assert that there is no possible way for these sorts of skill differences to be innate. Again quoting the Daily Mail article:

    “Overall they excelled in those jobs which needed speedy hand-to-eye co-ordination and verbal reasoning, such as threading six needles or winning an argument with logic.

    Men, in contrast, did better at those jobs which needed what researchers call spatial awareness, such as map reading, understanding self assembly instructions and putting up a tent.

    Women are better where they have to focus their entire attention on the job in hand while men are better when they can do something quickly and where it does not have to be 100 per cent accurate.”

    This obviously doesn’t prove that the differences are innate, but it does cast doubt on the idea that we can automatically rule out the possibility. Or the reasons could be simple things like the fact that women generally have smaller hands, which makes the needle threading easier.

    I did use the word “feminazi” somewhat sarcastically, but I also did mean to be critical of the author of this article. I am a big supporter of strong women and women having every opportunity in the world open to them, but I feel like the truly strong women don’t go around automatically eschewing any notion of traditional gender roles, nor do they feel the need to specifically call attention whenever they go against gender stereotypes. In my mind, the true feminists are the people who look at all opportunities and challenges available and decide what’s right for them…and don’t make a big deal about it in the process. (And yes, this includes those who look at the world and decide that raising children is truly the best use of their time.) They are also confident enough in themselves and their abilities to garner respect that they’re not afraid to iron a damn shirt or thread a needle should the need or desire arise. (It’s really the feminist equivalent of a guy being comfortable enough in his own masculinity to wear a pink shirt.) The feminazi, on the other hand, would spend all day struggling to change a tire just to say that she didn’t let the man keep her down. (For the record, I’ve seen guys insist on ironing their own shirts just to prove that they can, and I get frustrated with that too.)

    I feel that a respectable feminist could have written an article on the same topic, but it would have been more of the form “Hm, women are better at ironing. I wonder if that’s really innate or just due to the fact that practice makes perfect?” Or. better, yet, she wouldn’t have written an article at all, since the study isn’t really worth reporting on in the first place.

    To your last point, the fact of the matter is that statistical discrimination (i.e. stereotyping) is efficient when individual data is not available. Now, given who I am, I obviously run timed tests to see what I am better and worse at than my partner so that we can assign tasks accordingly. But I am guessing that most people don’t do that, so households are dealing with incomplete information to a degree. When individual data is unavailable, and the choice needs to be made in one direction or the other, it’s better to choose the option that works on average than choose randomly.

    P.S. The article also says that women are better at winning arguments. =P

  • 6 econgirl // Mar 18, 2010 at 1:10 pm

    One more point- this writer didn’t even think things through before raising a fuss, since a large part of her indignance stems from the notion that Mindlab decided on its own that this study needed to be done, when in reality it was commissioned for a goofy purpose by a pharmaceutical marketer. And it’s not like that information was hard to find, since it’s stated in the article that the author criticizes in the first paragraph.

  • 7 Dan L // Mar 18, 2010 at 8:48 pm

    I didn’t mean to be so harsh. I just have some strong opinions, and I like to argue. (But you figured that out already.)

    Btw, I did read the full Daily Mail article, so I assumed that the “study” didn’t control for past experience. And frankly, even if it did, I still wouldn’t call it science. (I would call it market research, since that’s what it is.) In my view, what the XX blog *should* have been complaining about was the Daily Mail’s decision to report on this, along with the absurd “analysis.”

    Speaking of that analysis, just because someone does some armchair theorizing about the reasons men and women are better at certain tasks, that doesn’t give those theories any validity. We can agree to disagree whether women could possibly be innately better at ironing shirts. But the main reason I say that an innate difference is absurd is that when you’re talking about menial tasks, experience and motivation will obviously dwarf any sort of innate ability. Any non-handicapped adult can be taught to iron a shirt or change a tire or clean a toilet or make a bed to a very high level of competence. (Btw, isn’t the stereotype that women are *less* logical?)

    Regarding feminazis: I don’t care how ridiculous someone’s personal brand of feminism is. That doesn’t merit being called a Nazi. Even if you find the XX blog’s mentality to be completely absurd, you have to admit that it bears zero resemblance to Nazism. The origin and popularity of the word feminazi was borne out of some deep-seated sexism. We don’t have such a word for any other extreme ideologies. Just to be clear, I’m not calling you a sexist or anything. I just don’t think it’s a word sensible people should use.

    Regarding your last point: So you’re saying that in deciding the division of labor in my marriage, we should say, “Hey, let’s just do it how the stereotypical couple does it, and we’ll tweak it from there.” Ohhh-kay. The reality is actually the opposite of what you say: Any normal couple intuitively understands how to divide labor far more efficiently than if they divided it according to “average couple.”

  • 8 econgirl // Mar 18, 2010 at 9:16 pm

    If I minded your arguments I would say so. (For the record, I was going to add a “P.P.S. I like you.” to my original reply.)

    I do see your points…though I do think that neither of us has a good handle on how a “normal couple” functions. I can say from personal experience that when given a task with stereotypical gender roles, the aforementioned male best friend and I did in fact start with “well, let’s assume that he’s better with the monkey wrench and I’m better cleaning stuff,” and it turns out that that worked pretty well. (I then had to redo something later that involved the monkey wrench and realized that I am not a brute force kind of person, so the opposite assignment would have almost surely been inferior.)

  • 9 Bikerdad // Jun 10, 2010 at 2:37 pm

    “The reality is actually the opposite of what you say: Any normal couple intuitively understands how to divide labor far more efficiently than if they divided it according to “average couple.””

    Wrong. There’s NOTHING “intuitive” about it. A “normal” couple is a discrete entity with greater knowledge of their capabilities and inclinations. It is this knowledge, not “intuition”, which serves as the basis of their division. As more knowledge becomes available, the division of labor may change. (“Wow, he LIKES ironing. But he really, really hates to vacuum.”)

    The catch is, when specific information is lacking, folks fall back on general info, aka “stereotypes.” Why? Because it’s more efficient than flat ignorance. (Sticking with the stereotypes in the face of contrary new info is less efficient, and hence frequently referred to as “stupid”)

    What’s interesting is how so many people get terribly and deeply offended when somebody who just met them applies a stereotype. Taking offense in this situation often amounts to overweening pride. In the face of such pride, the stereotyper will often think along the lines of, “Who the heck are you to think I should know that much about you before meeting you?”

  • 10 FutureofUSChinaTrade // Mar 9, 2011 at 9:31 pm

    To understand what comparative advantage is, and how it affects our theories about free trade, let’s recall two economists who have left indelible, if very different, imprints on free trade theories: Adam Smith argued that there are no inherent differences between people’s productive capacities – that any street porter could just as well be a philosopher (with some transition – education, presumably). David Ricardo argued, on the other hand, that people differ in their capacities to produce goods and services – that some people are better at hunting deer and others are better (more productive) at hunting beavers.

    The Smith-Ricardo argument is critical to framing our understanding of trade. The winners and losers – and, therefore, the policy implications – associated with trade depend almost wholly on whether one subscribes to the Smithean or the Ricardian theory of trade.

    In the end, the realities of trade are a bit Smithean and a bit Ricardian. So the returns from trade – increasing, not constant – come from the specialization of labor. The U.S. is more productive if it focuses on technology R&D and services and China is more productive if it focuses on manufacturing. In increasing productivity, incomes rise, and everyone – producers and consumers – wins.

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