Sheryl Sandberg is being cast as the Betty Friedan of her generation.
In case you missed the 43-year-old Facebook executive speaking with Oprah or on the cover of Time, the thesis of her “Lean In” book is this: We have educated a generation of women well, but too few make it to the top rungs. That’s partly because of societal barriers and subtle biases remain, partly because of women’s behavior.
Ms. Sandberg argues that, among other things, this is economically self-defeating. “If we tapped the entire pool of human resources and talent, our collective performance would improve,” she says.
That part of her memoir-cum-manifesto sounds appealing. Is it true?
Women in the Economy
One clue lies in looking at how far we’ve come. In 1960, about 95% of U.S. doctors and lawyers were white men. By the end of the 2000s, about two-thirds were. To varying degrees, the same goes for other high-skilled professions.
The U.S. economy has had a pretty good run since 1960, despite its recent travails. Per capita income has increased about 2.75 times.
Economists at Stanford University and the University of Chicago wondered how much of that growth came from harnessing the talent of women and blacks who previously had been barred from schooling or excluded from choice jobs or entire professions.
Their answer: a lot.
They estimate that between 1960 and 2008, about 15% to 20% of the growth in productivity, or output per hour of work, came from removing the barriers that blocked many white women and blacks of both genders from realizing their potential. Most of the economywide gains came from white women because they’re a bigger fraction of the workforce than blacks.
“In the 1960s, there were a large number of women and blacks who had the talent to be very successful and productive doctors, lawyers and managers,” says one of the economists, Stanford’s Chad Jones. “In 1960, some barriers kept them from working in occupations best suited to their talents. Over time, this has changed. The ever-improving allocation of talent has led to substantial productivity.”
Talented women have plenty of drive, says Jody Greenstone Miller in a conversation with WSJ Weekend Review editor Gary Rosen. What they need is employers with the imagination to accept a new approach to structuring work.
That’s convincing. Barriers that blocked women hurt the entire economy.
“A lot has happened since Betty Friedan wrote her book [“The Feminine Mystique”] in 1963,” says Claudia Goldin, a Harvard economic historian. “It’s amazing.” More than 57% of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2011 went to women, according to the Department of Education. So did 51% of doctorates, 48% of M.D.’s, 47% of law degrees and 45% of master’s degrees in business.
Yet only 14% of Fortune 500 chief executives are female. Fewer than one in five law-firm partners is female; the same ratio goes for the House of Representatives.
Ms. Sandberg asks: How come? “It’s time for us to face the fact that our revolution has stalled,” she writes.
“Sheryl is saying that women aren’t, for some reason, allowing themselves to get to the top,” says Ms. Goldin, who has studied women’s changing roles in the economy.
The Sandberg recipe for women who want to change that: 1) Sit at the table. You’re as good as anyone else there. 2) Don’t curtail your career aspirations in anticipation of having children. As she puts it, “Don’t leave before you leave.” And 3) find a mate who wants for you what you want, as Ms. Sandberg did on her second try.
That is sound advice.
But it doesn’t tell us how much more oomph the U.S. economy would get if it achieved Ms. Sandberg’s version of nirvana in which “women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes.”
To the extent that couples are making choices that prompt one of them, in Ms. Sandberg’s words, to “pull back” from high-powered careers rather than “lean in,” the dollars and cents of the nation’s gross domestic product is reduced.
That doesn’t, of course, mean the nation is worse off. Investing in the kids doesn’t show up immediately in the GDP, but surely pays off—both in satisfaction and in future prosperity.
Gary Becker, the Nobel laureate who pioneered the study of the economics of discrimination, says, “A lot of barriers [to women and blacks] have been broken down. That’s all for the good.”
But, he adds, “it’s much less clear what we see today is the result of such artificial barriers. Going home to take care of the kids when the man doesn’t: Is that a waste of a woman’s time? There’s no evidence that it is.”
Calculations by Mr. Jones and his co-authors, though, suggest there’s still a long way to go: There are still obstacles to be dismantled, whether societal or inside women’s heads.
“We are little over halfway there,” says Mr. Jones. There are still men holding jobs that women would do better. “Productivity could be 9% to 15% higher, potentially, if all barriers were eliminated.”