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Which parent does a school call first? 'Planet Money' has the answer


Economics is often about putting a number on things like inflation and unemployment. It can also quantify daily annoyances. Erika Beras of our Planet Money team looked into a recent study that did just that. It began with an email to thousands of school principals with the subject line, school inquiry.

ERIKA BERAS, BYLINE: The email read, (reading) Dear Principal So-And-So, we are searching for schools for our child. Can you call one of us to discuss? And then it listed the names and numbers of two parents, Roy and Erica. Almost 6,000 schools got that email - 1,200 called back. And Erica, the presumed mom, was 40% more likely to get that phone call than the dad was - 40%. Now, this wasn't a real school inquiry from real parents. It was from some clever economists running an experiment. And when I tried to call one of the paper's authors, Laura Gee at Tufts, she kind of warily answered the call from an unknown number.

LAURA GEE: It's summer, so my child is at a camp. And I didn't recognize the number, and I thought, oh, well, usually I don't like to pick up random phone calls, but it might be camp, and I might need to go pick up my kid because something's gone wrong.

BERAS: So this study is, like - it's not unrelated to your life.

GEE: No. This study is a study that was born of both my interest in labor markets as an economist and my interest in being angsty about always getting called instead of my male spouse. In fact, my husband is literally the vice president of my child's PTA at her school.

BERAS: (Laughter).

GEE: I do not know why he does not get the first call when something is going wrong.

BERAS: As a parent, it can feel like schools are more likely to call a mom before a dad. Laura and her co-authors, Olga Stoddard and Kristy Buzard, found evidence that happens, and there could be real consequences for what might seem like a small annoyance.

GEE: There is systemic inequality in the way that men and women are treated in the world by forces outside of the household. Those forces exacerbate gender inequalities in the labor market as a whole.

BERAS: This particular study was limited to two-parent heterosexual households. Clearly, there is more research to be done. For this paper, Laura and her co-authors were drawing from their direct life experience. For years, they'd been texting each other every time this happened to them. Like, oh, again. Can you believe it? But they're economists. So they were also like...

GEE: You know, this really has to affect the way that women and men interact with the workforce and the choices they make in a way that's not great for fully utilizing women as workers and being productive parts of the workforce.

BERAS: Those forces may mean women tend to anticipate those little life interruptions, so they sort themselves into more flexible jobs - jobs that don't pay as much, jobs where they don't move up - and that could affect their careers and their earning potential.

Erika Beras, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUI FUJISHIRO & ZAMA'S "RE: ALIVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Erika Beras
Erika Beras (she/her) is a reporter and host for NPR's Planet Money podcast.
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