Friday, August 10, 2007

Preference and Choice

Women Who Earn More (1 Letter) - New York Times

[T]he road to high pay is a toll road. On average, men more frequently pay 25 tolls: they work more hazardous jobs (accounting for 94 percent of workplace deaths), work outdoors (garbage collectors), on commission, relocate overseas, travel overnight and on weekends (90 percent of the most-frequent fliers are men), work graveyard shifts and weekends, specialize in engineering and technology where demand outpaces supply, and so on. The good news is that a woman making these trade-offs can outearn a man.

The bad news is that women don't get the opportunity to make those trade-offs. If you're a woman, just try getting one of those well-paid dirty, dangerous, outdoor guy jobs. If you're a woman you know very well that you don't have a shot and will just be embarrassed if you try. I once called about a night job running a floor sweeper in a factory. The guy who answered the phone asked whether the job was for myself. When I said it was he excused himself to talk to his supervisor. After a muffled conversation he got back to me and told me that there actually wasn't any job available after all--there had been some confusion. Women can't get these jobs and know it.

This is bounded rationality at work. Finite human beings, with finite time at their disposal, cannot consider every alternative and calculate costs, benefits and risks for each. They approach the decision problem, before making any calculations, with the assumption that lots of options are simply out of reach and make their choices from amongst a relatively narrow range of options that they recognize as feasible. They don't even think of those that aren't. It isn't a matter of calculating that the costs of working outdoors or getting dirty outweigh the benefits of higher pay: women don't even consider guy jobs because they assume, correctly, that they don't have a real chance of getting them and so don't apply.

As for commissioned sales jobs, this was one of the bones of contention in the class action suit against Sears years ago. Women couldn't get commissioned sales positions for big ticket items. Woman after women testified that she would prefer to get one of those jobs if she could, that she'd applied repeatedly and had been turned down. But all these women were trumped by a "feminist psychologist" called by Sears as an expert witness who testified that women didn't want to work on commission because they were risk averse. Plus ca change, plus ce la meme chose. Now as the Walmart case works its way through the courts we hear the same rhetoric: woman after woman testifies that she applied for fulltime or for promotion, expressed willingness to work nights and weekends, to travel or relocate, but were turned down over and over again--sometimes being told that they ought to be home for their children.

I don't doubt that 90 percent of the most frequent fliers are men. How many women get a chance to do jobs where you get to take frequent business trips? How many women are offered the chance to travel? When I worked in publishing, all of our college travelers were men: women were simply not hired for that job. Now most publishers' reps who visit me are women who seem to like the job fine. But back then the view, articulated by our editor-in-chief was women wouldn't want the job because it involved traveling and was "lonely"--women wanted to sit together in the office and gab. In fact women didn't apply for college traveler jobs then because they knew they couldn't get them, not because of a taste for gabbing around the water cooler. When it became feasible for women to get those jobs they applied and got them.

The rhetoric of choice and trade-offs that figures in these discussions assumes a highly idealized picture of decision-making that largely ignores budget constraints. We imagine homo economicus sitting at a vast switchboard with a few hundred nodes, plugging a current tester into each to display the costs, benefits and risks of each option and making trade-offs according to her preferences. Reasonable people don't operate that way. We don't plug the tester into options that we know aren't feasible for us. And we assess feasibility by looking at what people like us do--people of the same sex, race, or class, people we know, people in our circumstances. We assume, correctly, that our lives are likely to go the way theirs do and make our choices accordingly. We know, realistically, that the scope of choice is very limited: we don't make our lives--life happens to us, and the life that happens to us is likely to be the life that happens to people like us. The best we can do is make minor adjustments--if we're lucky.

The NYTimes occasionally features stories of highly privileged women who choose the mommy track--undergraduates at elite colleges who say they want to take 10 or 15 years off to be stay at home moms, corporate execs, partners in prestigeous law firms and the like, who quit to be upscale housewives. For them this is an authentic choice, an expression of their preferences. They're among a small group of highly privileged people who, unlike most of us, have a wide range of real options and significant control over the kinds of jobs they get and the kind of lives they live. When the privileged see the rest of us making choices they assume these choices reveal preferences. If I choose to apply for a cashier job rather than a job driving a two truck, they assume, it's because I prefer a clean, safe, indoor job--it's a choice, after all: no one is stopping me from applying for the tow truck job. They don't get it.

They don't understand that when we make occupational choices we aren't looking only, or primarily, at our preferences but at what we judge to be feasible and taking the least worst option. Some time ago I bailed my car out of the city tow lot. There was a crudely lettered sign on cardboard in the window advertising for tow-truck drivers--no experience necessary. I waited for over an hour on a line of furious motorists that snaked out the door before I finally got to the cashier's window. That cashier's job looked perfectly awful: trapped in a confined space behind bullet-proof glass, doing boring work, extracting payment from enraged customers who'd had their cars impounded and who had waited in the sun for an hour getting angrier by the minute--cursing, threatening lawsuits and murder. Did she prefer that job to driving a tow truck? Were the hooks and chains too heavy for her to lift? Was she willingly making a trade-off--putting up with the physical constraint, close supervision, boredom, public contact and abuse for clean, indoor work?

Give me a break. Every woman alive knows that she could never get the tow-truck job, that if she responded to that cardboard sign she'd be told the job was filled or asked to fill out an application and wait for a call that would never come. Who is foolish enough to go through the hassle and embarrassment of applying for a job at which they don't have a shot? It would be good news if women had the real option of making trade-offs. Most don't. We'd be happy to pay the tolls, but we don't have the opportunity.

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