VIDEO: Does mother tongue make for woman's work?

VIDEO: Does mother tongue make for woman's work?

Over the past century, women's labor market participation has increased dramatically around the world. Nevertheless, it seems that the final steps towards equality will be the most difficult as disparities between countries remain.

With co-authors Daniel L. Hicks of the University of Oklahoma and Amir Shoham of Temple University, Estefania Santacreu-Vasut studies the impact that language can have on the division of labor in firms, as well as within households.

Their study is novel in that it uses a quantitative approach to answer the following question: can male-female distinctions conveyed by grammatical rules explain the heterogeneity of gender roles between countries – and between linguistic communities within the same country?

The application of quantitative methods to study the effects of grammatical structure ​​on the economic behavior of individuals reveals that there is a strong correlation between the presence of male-female distinctions in grammar and women’s labor market participation, but also the types and amount of housework that women do in the home.

To deepen their analysis, they also studied the behavior of migrants from diverse backgrounds in the United States, in other words, men and women with different mother tongues. The study of migrant populations is interesting because it lets us analyze behaviors in different linguistic communities within a single institutional environment and labor market.

Some of their most interesting findings include:

  • Women who speak languages with strong male-female grammatical distinctions have a lower participation rate in the labor market;
  • Men who speak languages with strong male-female grammatical distinctions carry out fewer household tasks, even when their partner works outside the home.

These results could be the product of unequal bargaining power between men and women in relation to the division of household tasks, rather than the result of a gender identity conveyed by language. For example, these inequalities may result from economic specialization related to wage disparities between men and women.

However, this study also found that:

  • Single women who speak languages with strong male-female grammatical distinctions do more housework at home, even when they don’t have a partner. This suggests that their behaviors are related to gender identity perceived by the individuals themselves.

Of course, it’s difficult to establish a causal link between behavior and grammar, for language, economics and cultural institutions evolve in parallel.

It’s important to note that the link between grammar and gender-specific behavior is stable during the 20th century.

Two major changes have taken place in this century: the origin of migrants to the US has evolved: While predominantly European during the first part of the 20th century, it became increasingly Asian and Latin American during the second half. We’ve also observed a dramatic increase in female participation in the labor market over this same period. Despite these changes, the relationship between language and gender is stable over time.

Further Reading: 

Does mother tongue make for women's work? Linguistics, household labor, and gender identityJournal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 2015. 

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