Wharton’s Corinne Low shines an economic spotlight on gender bias by sharing valuable insights from her research on reproductive capital. That’s a phrase she’s coined to describe the economic value of fertility and the trade-offs that women face when choosing between investing in their careers and their families.


Dan Loney: What was it that had you thinking about studying gender bias in the workplace?

Corinne Low: The main thing that I’m interested in studying is the economics of being a woman and what makes that unique and challenging, and also special. I wanted to study the issues that were facing women with the same seriousness that we apply to the rest of economic science. So, it wasn’t so much starting with the perspective of gender bias but starting with the perspective of economics as the science of maximizing, subject to constraint, subject to scarce resources. What are those unique constraints that women are facing? What does that maximization or optimization problem look like from a woman’s perspective? How can we use the same tools that we use to study how firms make decisions and how consumers make decisions to understand the unique spectrum of decisions that women need to make.

Loney: This issue is being talked about a lot in society in general, so doing research on these areas becomes very important as we look to see where the development lies.

Low: That’s exactly right, and I think one of the things I hope to accomplish with my research is that when we talk about these issues, we can’t talk about them in a separate domain from economics. I wanted to bring together the cutting-edge science of economics with these issues that affect women’s lives, because a lot of what economists do is study how people make decisions. Women are people, and women make decisions, and decisions have big economic consequences.

By introducing the term reproductive capital, I hope I’m giving some language to the economics of women’s decisions to bring them out of this domain of treating them like a separate set of issues that we address with a separate set of tools, and to bring them back into this domain of economic decision-making and maximization and optimization.

Loney: Can you explain what reproductive capital is?

Low: This is a term that I came up with when I was in grad school. The term capital typically means material things of worth that can be used to create other things of value. We talk about firms making a trade-off between capital and labor, so they’re deciding how much do I want to use workers, and how much do I want to use machines. Economists came up with this term human capital, which is the fact that skills that human beings have can be used to create things of economic value as well. It’s not just that a machine can be a form of capital, but you can have human capital that’s going to produce value. We talk about education as investing in human capital. I realized that, well, something that women bring to the table is producing something of economic value as well, and that’s women’s reproductive capital.

That women are actually bringing to the table this ability to create other human beings is pretty fantastic, and this is a tremendous source of value in society. People all across the world want to have children, so being able to create children is a really important form of capital in society. I wanted to acknowledge that and coin this term to demonstrate that this was a source of economic value. And I wanted to deliberately create that parallelism with human capital because one of the things about reproductive capital that I highlight in my research is that it’s time-limited. It depreciates like all forms of capital depreciate, but reproductive capital is this very specific and unforgiving schedule, which is that as women age into their late 30s and 40s, they go through a reproductive decline and eventually menopause.

That time horizon of reproductive capital creates a fundamental trade-off between investments in human capital, which are going to be worthwhile because you can market those skills and get some economic returns, versus investing and using your reproductive capital. Having a family and producing children is not something you’re going to market in general, so it’s not ever going to be assigned this dollars-and-cents value on the traditional market. But it actually is something that’s tremendously economically valuable, and we see that through people’s choices to invest their time and money in children. We see that children are something that people value, and we as economists should be concerned with how they get produced.

Loney: Were you able to determine a value that associates what reproductive capital can mean to a woman as they’re not only trying to have a family, but also trying to build out their career?

Low: Women are facing this trade-off with their biological clock. They value having kids, and this is something that they don’t want to have to give up on. But what I didn’t see is really trying to put an economic value on it. To do that, I turned to a type of market where reproductive capital has value — and that’s the marriage market.

I thought if I can show that this actually affects women’s perceived value on the marriage market, I’m going to be able to put an economic value on this resource of reproductive capital. I used a study where I randomly assigned age and income to dating profiles, and then I had men rate these women’s dating profiles with randomly assigned age and income. What I found is that for each year that a woman ages after age 30, she has to earn an additional $7,000 a year to get the same rating in this experiment.

Because the age and income are randomly assigned, I can attribute it to just age that’s driving this, whereas if I used data from the world or from a dating site where I saw who was interested in whom, I wouldn’t be able to separate out the fact that somebody who is older has a lot of other things going on in her life. Somebody who is older may be more likely to be divorced, they might have a different photo, they might have a different career. But I was randomly assigning the age, so I’m holding that profile constant. One person is seeing her at 35 and somebody else is seeing her at 36. And then I’m able to value, what does that extra year mean? I found that it was worth the equivalent of $7,000 of annual salary, and that was showing that men really valued reproductive capital from their potential partners.

The way that I was able to show that this is actually about fertility and reproduction, rather than other dimensions of age, was that I found that there was not this preference for men who already had kids from a previous relationship. And there wasn’t this preference from men who didn’t have good knowledge that there was a fertility decline between ages 30 and 40. And it also showed it was stronger for people who wanted a more serious relationship, who wanted to get married, and who wanted to have kids. Whereas if you thought this was because you wanted somebody who was young and fun and cool to go drinking with, you might think the people who were looking for a more casual relationship would actually have that stronger preference for younger age. But it was actually the people who wanted to get married and wanted to have kids who showed this strong preference.

I attribute this preference to the market value of fertility. It’s not the traditional market where we’re able to put a price on it because it’s going to be sold, but it is a type of market where you’re making these trade-offs between all these possible traits in your partner. And one of the things that makes a woman more attractive on the marriage market is bringing reproductive capital to the table.

Of course, it has personal value — whether or not you’re able to have kids and this trade-off you might be making with your career — but I wanted to show that there was a real economic cost to it as well. For women, let’s say their manager says, “I want to send you on this assignment to Asia, and it’s going to be really good for your career. But you’re going to have to work 80 hours a week and be totally 100% focused on launching this new team.” That’s going to cause her to say, “This is going to delay my timeline for maybe getting married or having a family. It’s going to increase my earnings, so it’s going to be good for my human capital, but there’s going to be a depreciation in my reproductive capital.” She’s facing an economic trade-off, where there’s value that she could be making and money she could be earning, but there’s an economic loss from making it as well. I wanted to put it in those terms to show that this isn’t just a personal decision, this is an economic decision.

Loney: For a lot of women, this is a decision that they have to make in terms of their career and personal life in order to see what they value the most at that particular time.

Low: Yeah, but it’s not just about what they value. It’s about them maximizing this economic question where these are two things that are both valuable, and she has to make a trade-off between them. I think you’re absolutely right that the issue here is that both things are valuable, and in some ways our society is not set up so that you can have it all at once.

The policy recommendation that I would make is we can make this trade-off easier for women if we make it more possible to do both things at once, and we make there be less of a trade-off between maximizing your human capital and maximizing your reproductive capital.

Loney: How do you think this information impacts the consideration women give when they’re planning their careers or their lives?

Low: I think this is something women think about, and this is something that women inherently know. It’s kind of hard for people who are not women to believe that, because it’s not something that they’ve been faced with all of their lives. I have this paper about Israel making IVF free. From a naive perspective, you might think that’s going to impact women between 35 and early 40s who haven’t had children yet, and now they’re going to be able to use IVF to have children.

But we actually see a tremendous impact on young women who are looking forward and planning their life. Now they know this technology is going to be available to them later in life, so they make the decision to delay marriage, they make the decision to finish the degree, they make the decision to break off the relationship that was only so-so and maybe play the field a little bit more and wait for somebody else.

We see them increasing their representation and getting graduate degrees, becoming doctors and lawyers and professors and things that require these long-term investments. We see young women making decisions in anticipation of how this reproductive time horizon is changing based on the introduction of this new technology. So, I think this is something that women know is a real constraint and inherently plan around. They think about it and talk about it with their mentors. They map out their careers relative to this reproductive constraint. As much as my research maybe is depressing in some ways, I hope that it also makes women feel seen because they’ve been making this trade-off, they’ve been facing this fundamental catch-22 of you can’t have it all.

You know, it can make you crazy to feel like there’s this big issue that I’m dealing with, yet the responsibility is all on my shoulders, and it’s treated as something that’s [my fault]. Because I want a family, because I value this, now I’m the one who’s kind of stuck in this bind. And I wanted to tell and show women, no, this is a real economic constraint you’re facing, and you’re facing it because you uniquely are in possession of something that’s super economically valuable — reproductive capital. You’re trying to figure out how to maximize the value of this depreciating asset that you’re holding, and this other asset that requires your time to invest in it, which is your human capital.

Loney: What do employers and policymakers need to be thinking about around this?

Low: I hope that firms and policymakers don’t just invest in fertility extending technology. I think that is not solving the fundamental problem. Sometimes that’s a solution we see firms reach for. They say, “We’ll pay for our employees to freeze their eggs.” But that’s not solving this trade-off, that’s just kicking the can down the road. And it’s acknowledging that if you’re a firm that’s doing that and not doing other things, you’re saying, “I’m not going to work to make this more sustainable for you to balance career and family, I’m just going to ask you to wait and do it later, after we’ve gotten the value that we want to out of you.”

I think it’s great if firms want to pay for egg freezing, but they can’t stop there. I don’t want to just move it further down the line. They can’t work forever, so women are just going to face that trade-off when the time comes. I think what I would look for instead is that we truly place value as a society on reproductive capital and on caregiving, and acknowledge that the time required for caregiving has not declined over the past 20 years. Yet we have way more women in the labor force, and we have way fewer households that are set up to have just one primary earner and one person who is able to do a lot of the home production and caregiving and focus exclusively on that.

All employees are looking for more flexibility and more ability to do this caregiving work and have their families and prioritize that in their lives, because the structure of the American household has changed. It’s by and large two earners, and we need to adjust to that. I think that’s one thing that I would say, is just for firms to understand that that time spent on caregiving has not been declining. In fact, it’s been increasing.

Throughout the 20th century, we saw time at home be replaced by machines, like dishwashers and washing machines. So, for a little while it got easier to do the work at home because we had technology. But technology can’t replace our time spent with children. What we’ve seen over the past 25 years is that time is going up. When we look at surveys like the American Time Use Survey, we see people spending more time on caregiving, not less time. That’s not going away, and it’s something that firms fundamentally need to address.

That’s my first big message to firms: Think about caregiving as work that all of your employees have to do, and figure out how that fits in with the work that they need to do for you. And my second big message for firms, which is I think part of that, is rethinking flexibility to mean not just flexibility during the work day, but flexibility across the life cycle.

We’ve recognized that Zoom is a great technology that we can use to not require people to be in the office when their kid is home sick. Or breaking up the face time so you don’t need to stay at the office until 8 p.m. and miss family dinner. Maybe you go home at five when your kids get out of day care, you have dinner with your family, and then you log back on after they’re sleep, and you get that last hour or so of work in. That’s flexibility across the work day, and I think that’s something we need to invest in. But the piece that I think is new with this understanding of reproductive capital and its specific schedule of decline is that we need flexibility across the life cycle. We need to ask, why is it that the typical career path is you get your MBA and then immediately jump on the partner track at the consulting firm or investment bank or whatever firm you’re in where you’re expected to put in 75 hours a week when you’re in your 30s? And that’s the time when reproductive capital is declining.

Is there a way to build in flexibility across the life cycle so that women can make some of these investments earlier or later and have more time to maximize the value of their human capital and their reproductive capital? As we see people’s working lives extend into their 70s, there’s no reason why women shouldn’t be able to make some of these big investments in their 40s and be able to have the type of high-powered careers that we see women dropping out of because firms too often force them to choose.