Harris Professor Draws Connections Between Attitude Towards Workplace and Birthplace Among American Women

Coding for residential and background sexist attitudes among American women, Harris School of Public Policy professor Kerwin Charles studies the impact of a person’s residence and attitudes towards workplace equality.

By Alison Gill

Last week at Saieh Hall for Economics, Harris School of Public Policy professor Kerwin Charles presented his research showing that location influences a woman’s income and attitude toward work.

The talk was the first in a series of speaker events hosted by the Becker Friedman Institute for Economics. 

In front of a crowd of over 100 people, Charles explained that the sexist attitudes of a woman’s birthplace can continue to hinder her career even after she has moved from her birthplace. Charles’s research, which was recently featured in TheNew York Times, was conducted with Jonathan Guryan of Northwestern University and Jessica Pan of National University of Singapore. 

Charles began his lecture by examining the trends in the labor force over the past 50 years. He pointed out that since 1975, the difference in workforce participation between genders has more than halved, and the wages of women have significantly increased. He said these trends show “a convergence that is amazing, a convergence that should be lauded.”

“But,” he added, “a convergence that’s not at complete parity,” meaning the two genders are still not yet on equal footing.

Charles emphasized that both the convergence and the “massive differences between men and women” in income and workforce participation remain largely unexplained. He said his research establishes how societal norms and discrimination “explain to a substantial degree the convergence we see and also the lack of convergence to full parity.”

To understand the effects of sexism, Charles separated a woman’s exposure to sexism into two types: background and residential. He defined background as the internalized sexism that a woman grows up with and residential as the direct sexism of her current location that “undergirds the discrimination she faces today.” Essentially, if a woman grew up believing that women should prioritize children over their careers, that’s background sexism. If, today, she gets passed over for promotions in favor of less qualified male colleagues, that’s residential sexism. 

The results, in Charles’s words, were “surprising.” While he found that residential sexism had a larger influence on current market outcomes of women, background sexism contributed more significantly to those outcomes than Charles initially expected.

“Being born and raised in a more sexist place has a lingering, long-term effect on adult women no matter where she lives [now],” he said.

To assess the importance of this distinction, the study focused on Americans who have moved, and it calculated the “mean sexism” of every state based on answers to various surveys. These surveys posed questions regarding attitudes toward women in the workforce, child-rearing, and other domestic duties. 

Using these calculations and U.S. Census information, Charles found that a woman from Tennessee—a relatively more sexist state—is less likely to work and more likely to earn lower wages than a woman from Illinois, even if both were to move to New York in their adulthood. 

This same scenario does not hold true for their male counterparts, leading Charles to conclude that men face no adverse effects in the labor market from background sexism. 

Background sexism can also impact the non-professional choices of women. Women raised in less sexist states, largely due to the influence of their female relatives, are more likely to delay marriage and starting a family than women in more sexist states. Charles partly attributes this fact to background sexism. 

To summarize, Charles said, “For labor outcomes, [sexism] operates chiefly through the discrimination imposed on [women] by men…. For non-labor outcomes, our evidence suggests it is about [women] having internalized the norms of other adult women surrounding them.” 

Based on the findings of his research and current American migration patterns, Charles concluded that he could “predict the sexism you would encounter based exclusively on the accident of where you were born.”