Stubborn girls and dependent boys: Gender differences in the labor market return to child behavior

Ive here. The paper argues that boys, girls and boys who rebel against gender images grow up to be men and women who are not as welcome as they should be in the workplace. It is assumed that these people either manage to resist or fail to adapt to conformity pressure. This is different from Stereotype Threat, where girls do poorly in math because they are given subtle (and, when older, often overt) information that they don’t should do well. One piece of evidence that this result is largely attributable to nurture rather than nature is that in the Middle East, where men don’t value math skills, girls and young women generally do better at math than their male peers.1

By: Robert Kaestner, research professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, and Ofer Malamud, associate professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University.Originally Posted in VoxEU

The persistence of the gender pay gap suggests its roots may go back to childhood. Using data from the United States Longitudinal Survey, this column examines how gender differences in adult income correspond to various childhood behaviors. The results showed that women (but not men) who displayed wayward behavior in childhood were penalized significantly in adulthood, while men (but not women) who displayed more dependent behavior in childhood were penalized. Whether these patterns are the result of non-conformity with gender norms and stereotypes warrants further attention and research.

Despite substantial convergence in pay and employment levels, gender disparities in the labor market persist (Azmat and Petrongolo 2014). Potential explanations for these differences include gender differences in preferences (Booth et al., 2012) and labor market discrimination (Booth and Leigh, 2010). In recent work (Kaestner and Malamud 2021), we explored the impact of gender differences in the labor market on various dimensions of child behavior.

A substantial body of literature documents the important relationship between cognitive skills measured in childhood and adolescence and adult income (eg Murnane et al., 1995). More recently, research has also shown significant associations between adult income and childhood “non-cognitive skills” such as socioemotional behavior and temperament (eg Heckman et al. 2006, Papageorge et al. 2019). However, relatively little research has been done on the relationship between gender differences in the labor market and children’s “non-cognitive skills”, especially when broken down into specific behavioral domains.

We used data from children from the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (C-NLSY79) to examine associations between several different child behavioral problems measured at 4 to 12 years of age and adult income measured at 24 to 30 years of age. Our measures of behavioral problems in children were drawn from the abbreviated version of the Parent-Reported Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL), “designed to measure some of the more common problem behavior syndromes found in children” (Zill 1985). The CBCL is one of the most widely used assessments of emotional and behavioral problems in children and has been shown to have strong predictive validity. Like the CBCL on which they are based, measures of behavioral problems in C-NLSY79 have also been shown to have strong predictive validity (Parcel and Menaghan 1988).

The specific behavioral syndromes documented in C-NLSY79 are:

  • antisocial behavior
  • anxiety/depression
  • willful behavior
  • hyperactive behavior
  • dependent behavior
  • Peer conflict.

The items that make up the behavior scale are intuitive. For example, the child scored high on the Waywardness scale when the caregiver reported that he or she argued too much; was short-tempered and easily lost his temper; was disobedient at home; stubborn, sullen, or irritable; nervous. On the other hand, when the child’s mother reported that he or she needed a lot of attention, the child scored highly on the dependency scale. clinging to adults; crying too much; and being too dependent on others. To improve reliability, we averaged the scale scores for all surveys of children between the ages of 4 and 12.

main findings

We found that for women who displayed more capricious behaviors and men who displayed more dependent behaviors in childhood, there was a huge and significant penalty for income. There are no significant or financially meaningful penalties for wayward men or dependent women. While other child behavior problems were also associated with income, their associations did not differ significantly by gender. Below is a graphical representation of income disparities related to capricious and dependent behaviours by sex (see Table 2 in Kaestner and Malamud 2021 for the full set of estimates of behaviour for all children).

figure 1

These results are robust to surrogate norms of income (eg horizontal or logarithmic) and child behavior (eg linear or categorical). The results were also similar, whether or not adjusted for differences in academic achievement or family background, as well as taking into account the effect of family background that varied by gender. Although we were careful to avoid making a strong causal relationship to the estimated relationship, these analyses address some of the more important and potentially confounding effects of family background.

Significant sex differences in associations between child behavior and likelihood of employment, working time, marriage, fertility, or self-esteem did not moderate for the different rewards for dependent and capricious behavior by sex. We also found no gender differences in the associations between child behavior and adult personality traits, mental health (CESD), or the probability of physical health. While we did find that men who were described as dependent were more likely to report poor health — an association that differed significantly from the corresponding figures for women — these differences were too small for health to be a significant mediator of gender differences between dependent behavior and income. relationship between.

However, we did find heterogeneous gender differences in educational and occupational rewards for capricious and dependent behavior. This heterogeneity hints at the role of the workplace environment, and perhaps workplace bias, in explaining the gender differences between these children’s behavior and early adulthood earnings.


A potential explanation for our findings is that children who exhibit behaviors that deviate from gender norms and stereotypes may be punished in the labor market. In our environment, dependent behavior is more prevalent among girls than boys, and capricious behavior (as well as other child behaviors) is more common among boys than girls. At the same time, numerous polls have shown that certain traits, such as stubbornness and assertiveness, are more correlated with men, while other behaviors, such as sensitivity and emotionality, are more correlated with women (Eagly et al. 2019). This assumption is consistent with the role-consistency theory of prejudice, which posits that men and women who behave in the opposite way to expected behavior are often affected by prejudice (Eagly and Karau 2002). In fact, men and women in the labor market who do not conform to gender norms and stereotypes have been shown to suffer social and economic sanctions (Akerlof and Kranton 2000, Brescoll and Uhlmann 2008).

However, more research is needed to distinguish this hypothesis from other explanations. For example, is the moderating effect of gender due to differences in actual productivity, or due to negative perceptions of wayward women and dependent men by colleagues and supervisors? The former may be present if the behavior is more pronounced by gender, while the latter is consistent with prejudice due to unqualified gender behavior. Another important question is why other childhood behaviors—such as hyperactivity, antisociality, and peer conflict—are not different in their associations with gender earnings. As with capricious behaviors, these behaviors were strongly correlated with adult earnings and were more prevalent among boys than girls. So why is there no moderating effect of gender in the context of these behaviors? Perhaps these behaviors are less relevant to adult gender stereotypes and therefore not considered gender-nonconforming. Or maybe these behaviors don’t lead to negative perceptions of work because they don’t affect social interactions. Further research is needed to answer these questions.

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1 In the upper middle class, these are clientist societies, so who you and your family know is more important than technical achievement.

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