Femke Halsema, women labour participation, and micro-macro problems

Friday, I watched “Katja en Sophie”, a Dutch talkshow hosted by Katja Schuurman and Sophie Hilbrand. The topic of the evening was the difficulties (Dutch) women have when combining a career with having children. Femke Halsema, political leader of Groenlinks, was one of the guests. She rightfully criticized an expert, but missed out on some of the more interesting arguments.

One of the elements of the talkshow was a video in which an ‘expert’ (Henk Noort) explained some scientific thoughts on why women still have lower career possibilities, compared with men. He mentioned two causes for the low labour market participation: women get physically ‘addicted’ to their children, thereby increasing the incentive for women to quit working after having had a child. The second reason was a comparison with the United States, where due to the shortage of men during the First World War men were forced to make way for working women.

Femke Halsema exploded when hearing these arguments. I think she was right to explode. Indeed, it remains just a little unclear how exactly a world war, 90 years ago, could bring differences between women labour participation about. I would say that that is not an explanation, but the labelling of an observed correlation. However right Halsema was to object to this ‘explanation’, she missed out on what I think is the more interesting statements made by Henk Noort: the argument that there is a biological basis for the low labour participation of women.

I think this argument fails on two accounts. Firstly, it is unclear why this biological explanation doesn’t apply in the United States (referring to the WWI argument), or at least how these two explanations relate to each other. But the more important criticism is that this explanation does not take into account the social structure, thereby failing to aggregate to the level of society. This is generally referred to as the micro-macro problem in social science.

What does that mean? Let’s suppose that indeed women after childbirth become physically ‘addicted’ to their baby and therefor have more difficulties than men to return to the labour market. We could interpret this as an individual level ‘preference’ of women. But behaviour is not formed by single preferences, but also by the beliefs (what is `good’ to do) and opportunities (what is ‘possible’ to do) of people. Beliefs in this case can be formed by social contacts (friend who work), opportunities to work is formed by propoer day-care. This alone can lead to the situation where the macro-level outcome of individual preferences seems counter-intuitive. In normal language, this means that despite the (supposed) biological preference of women not the re-enter the labour market is not a sufficient explanation for the low labour market participation of women.

It is nice when science is taken into account in a public debate, but it is almost never done properly. The few short minutes available to Henk Noort were not sufficient to give a detailed explanation of research findings. Additionally, science is characterized by debate, but in this broadcast no criticism was expressed. And criticism would have been justified, for when the social structure is not taken into account, a psychological mechanism is not enough to explain societal outcomes.

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