Debra Barbezat's Home Economics


Students turn to their own family histories to put faces on gender-based inequities in labor markets.

By Stephen Collins '74

Red tree rootsSince her first year at Colby, 1992, Mitchell Family Professor of Economics Debra Barbezat has lectured about gender-based inequities in the labor market in Econ 254.

Each year she tells her students, “Gender influences your opportunity.”

“They don’t believe it,” she said. “Men or women.”

Though she hasn’t given up on the time-honored, stand-and-deliver lecture, Barbezat recently has employed a powerful new hook. For the past three years the biggest class assignment—30 percent of the grade in The Economics of Women, Men, and Work—is a project requiring students to research their own families to explore how gender affected the labor-market experiences of the students’ parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, or even great-grandparents. The semester ends with presentations to the whole class.

“Rather than listen to me say it—and not really believe it—they do it through their own investigation,” Barbezat said.

Sure, students read about trends and study statistics that show how women are penalized as they bounce in and out of the labor market to rear children and manage domestic duties. How men, meanwhile, are groomed for executive positions with professional development and company-supported training. How trailing spouses who follow a partner’s career moves aren’t as likely to advance in their professions or achieve their pay potential.

“It is kind of eye opening when you look at your own family and look at other people’s families,” said Mike Policinski ’10, an economics major from Minnesota. “It makes it more real.”

“Ninety percent of the class did fit the gender trends we were talking about,” Policinski estimated. “Everyone kind of fit into it—their parents and their grandparents.”

Meghan Saccone ’10, from Andover, Mass., said the project was a departure from her other work in economics, “where you study the models and you find the answers.”

In Barbezat’s class, Saccone said, “we looked at things like divorce and childbirth and explained those in terms of the economics we know. We did the economics of deciding to get married and the multiple reasons why you might do that.”

She learned that her great-grand-mother, a second-grade teacher in New Hampshire, “upon entering wedlock, was forced into compulsory retirement as was mandated by state law at the time.”

Her grandmother, also a teacher, wanted to be a CIA interpreter. “That was shocking.  ... It’s part of her I never knew about,” she said. But her grandmother didn’t express any regret about giving up that ambition to return to New Hampshire in order to marry.

Saccone also wrote about her aunt, who earned a master’s in French literature and then was the primary breadwinner and did most household tasks while her husband worked long hours for little pay to finish his medical internship and residency. Upon becoming a doctor, he relocated the family from Long Island to New Hampshire, and the aunt took a “significant wage cut” in the transition.

Saccone wrote that her aunt’s working life illustrates many characteristics of women in the workplace. “She had two significant periods of absence from the market, which corresponded perfectly with the birth of her oldest and youngest children. Most discontinuous workers, like Sharon [her aunt], experience significant decreases in earning potential as a result of their time off.”

The notion that a spouse’s higher education—a form of human capital—can be figured into divorce settlements interested several students. If you work to put your spouse through law school or medical school, say, a judge may award part of your spouse’s earning potential to you in a divorce decree. “I never considered that someone could try to claim that they should have part of your educational attainment in a monetary way,” Saccone said. “It makes you think.”

Brooke Wanlass ’11 learned from her great aunt’s experience about the importance of human capital—in that case earning a master’s degree, which “enabled her to do what she wanted.” The story reinforced Wanlass’s interest in going on to law school. “Sometimes it’s hard to imagine going to graduate school when you’re working so hard here. It’s like, ‘Oh, I just want to be done!’ But I think it will pay off, and doing this project showed me it is a good investment.”

Amy Snickenberger ’10 wrote about her great-grandparents’ marriage: “Laurens and Ethel met and married after she attended college. The D factor scale indicates that the opportunity cost for their marriage was minimal. Their parents introduced them because they were in similar social groups, which made their courtship easy and convenient. ... The fact that Laurens already had a stable job was an economic incentive for Ethel to marry him.”

While some American students balked at applying the terminology of the so-called dismal science to love and matrimony, Barbezat noted that students from South Asia and Africa, where arranged marriages are common, said such calculus came as no surprise.

Barbezat stressed the value of international perspectives, noting that more than 20 countries were represented in the class, between international students and children of immigrants.

Tubotu Musumali ’09J, from Zambia, wrote about gender discrimination in her grandparents’ generation, which extended to her grandmother, the “senior wife” in a bigamist marriage, being banished from her grandfather’s land after his death.

Soule Sow ’09, from Senegal, wrote about his grandparents, who owned and traded in cows in an era when ethnicity acted as a caste system that defined job prospects in Senegal. A generation later his aunt and uncle moved to France in search of better job opportunities. When the uncle moved back to Senegal, the aunt stayed in France. Though she had sacrificed her own education so he could attend graduate school and her human capital was limited, Western Europe offered job opportunities that Africa did not.

Barbezat didn’t invent the family history; it’s a project that’s been passed around among economists who teach gender economics courses, she said. And it’s proven as popular with students’ families as with the students themselves. “They loved it,” said Brooke Wanlass of the interview with her great aunt and great uncle. “They’d go on and on.”

And what did students find? Some discovered exceptional women and men who challenged “occupational gender segregation” or broke gender barriers in the workplace. But the many case studies followed statistical trends. Si Rioux ’10, from Cape Elizabeth, Maine, concluded: “With this evidence, it is clear that although economic and social circumstances have improved for many women, the United States still has a long way to go to eliminate gender bias in the labor market.”

“It is amazing,” wrote Amy Snickenberger, “that as our country moves forward to combat gender discriminations in the workforce that gender discrepancies still exist within many jobs.”

blog comments powered by Disqus