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The Mary Tyler Moore Effect

Summary:
In 1970, every Justice on the Supreme Court of Canada was male. Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau had an all-male cabinet. Canada had never had a female premier - or even a female television newsreader. Little girls across the country were starting to feel the faint stirrings of ambition, often encouraged by mothers who wanted their daughters to live life to the fullest. But they had no idea - how does one be a "career woman"? What does a professional woman even look like? Then the Mary Tyler Moore Show came along. It showed a woman who was smart, and independent, and made mistakes - and won out in the end. She was successful. She was likeable. She opened up a world of possibilities. The Mary Tyler Moore Show first aired in 1970, and went off the air in 1977. This is what happened to US female labour force participation rates during this period. Now it is impossible to establish any kind of causal relationship between the Mary Tyler Moore show and female labour force participation rates.

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In 1970, every Justice on the Supreme Court of Canada was male. Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau had an all-male cabinet. Canada had never had a female premier - or even a female television newsreader. Little girls across the country were starting to feel the faint stirrings of ambition, often encouraged by mothers who wanted their daughters to live life to the fullest. But they had no idea - how does one be a "career woman"? What does a professional woman even look like?

Then the Mary Tyler Moore Show came along. It showed a woman who was smart, and independent, and made mistakes - and won out in the end. She was successful. She was likeable. She opened up a world of possibilities.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show first aired in 1970, and went off the air in 1977. This is what happened to US female labour force participation rates during this period.

Screen Shot 2017-01-26 at 1.15.48 PM

Now it is impossible to establish any kind of causal relationship between the Mary Tyler Moore show and female labour force participation rates. It's equally if not more plausible that the Mary Tyler Moore Show was commercially successful precisely because women were already entering the workforce - induced to change their behaviour by washing machines and microwaves that lessened the need for household work and increased the desire for cash, by birth control methods that allowed for greater predictability and control over the timing of births, by stagnating male wages and technological change, and so on, and so forth. 

And yet...

This graph compares trends in US and Canadian female labour force participation rates between 1970 and 2012. What's striking about this graph, and the one below based on World Bank data, is that it seems Canadian and the US female labor force participation rates crossed in around the year 2000, when both countries had a female labour force participation rate of around 59%. By 2014, however, Canada's female labour force participation rate was 5 percentage points higher than the US rate (61.4% v. 56.3%). 

Screen Shot 2017-01-26 at 2.17.41 PM

This next graph shows changes female labour force participation rates for selected countries and selected years between 1990 and 2014. I downloaded the data from here: http://databank.worldbank.org/data/reports.aspx?source=2&series=SL.TLF.CACT.FE.ZS&country=#Screen Shot 2017-01-26 at 2.08.25 PM

 

Even in a globalized era there are cross-country differences in both the level of, and trend in, female labour force participation. Moreover, it is not obvious that we are seeing continual convergence or progress towards greater gender equality. 

 Female labour force participation? It's complicated. The economics literature has identified many factors that influenced women's work decisions: household technology, birth control, education levels and the country's industrial mix. Yet there is increasing evidence that culture matters  too -- things like attitudes, expectations, ideas about what is appropriate behaviour for men and women. There is even some fairly strong evidence that television has a causal impact on people's attitudes.

Mary Tyler Moore - you made it all seem worthwhile. Rest in Peace.

 

Frances Woolley
I am a Professor of Economics at Carleton University, where I have taught since 1990. My research centres on families and public policy. My most-cited work is on modelling family-decision making, measuring inequality within the household, feminist economics, and tax-benefit policy towards families. I hold a BA from Simon Fraser University, an MA from Queen’s, and completed my doctorate at the London School of Economics, under the supervision of Tony Atkinson.

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