A few months back, slate.com 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.