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OPINIONS

Feminism and the Wage Gap, Part II: Women, Society and the Workplace

In my last piece, I talked about the question of pay disparities in the workforce, and pointed out that countries with paid maternity leave often have even greater pay disparities than countries without it. Put simply, maternity leave is not a cure-all for gender issues. There are other underlying factors that make the gender pay gap as large as it is, most prominently family planning and organization.

But I’m not against paid maternity leave: With paid leave, women could leave their job for a period to care full time for their children and then, when ready, return and go back to their job at full force. This would prevent them from feeling guilty or ostracized for seemingly choosing either their family or their career. It might also play a role in whether a mother or father will be the primary breadwinner for a family, since a mother with children could continue to be paid as if she was still working.

You may argue: “What if a man is making more than his wife? Then obviously he should work full time and his partner should care for their child.” Maybe so, but doing so would further feed into the cycle of women earning less than men. If we believe that if a man is earning more already, he should work even more, then we should also believe that his female counterpart would work less, which means she will make less money. And so the wage gap only increases. We have already established that most of this gap can be linked to quantifiable factors like occupational differences (i.e. a disproportionate amount of women becoming nurses) and differences in the number of hours worked.

But this doesn’t tell the whole story – in 2000, an extensive study conducted by Cornell economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn found that when factors like work experience, education, race, occupation distribution and union coverage are controlled for, there still exists a 9% pay difference. A more recent 2008 study found this gap is more like 7%. What is this 7%?

Experts don’t know – and we might not be able to know either. It is highly possible that some discrimination against women does still exist in the work force – be it conscious or subconscious. But I think we can safely assume that there is very little gender-based discrimination overall, as such discrimination would only be a lawsuit waiting to happen for employers.

Let’s say, however, for argument’s sake that the big issue is family status – the decision of women to leave their jobs to care for family members. Then is the only way to close the pay gap for women to stop having children? I think not. But there is clearly no easy solution here.

In order to close much of the wage gap, companies would have to be willing to work more cooperatively with mothers, men and women might both have to reduce their work hours to focus more on their families, or there might need to be a shift towards more men becoming the primary caregiver for children.

I am a feminist – I believe that men and women should have equal opportunities and be treated fairly in all ways that make sense. But in order to close this wage gap, it truly seems that by and large what is needed is a shift in the way women and men plan families and seek out work. If women are subconsciously being prodded by external factors to become homemakers when in a vacuum they would not make that choice, then it’s not really their choice at all.

It needs to become more acceptable for mothers and fathers to equally split work and family duties. Capable companies should seek to work more cooperatively with single parents to allow women to dedicate as much time to their jobs as they would like and seek promotion should they desire it as well. And some women should rid themselves from any fears that they might be judged harshly or unfairly for placing importance on their job or seeking to “climb the greasy pole,” rather than focus entirely on a family.

Simple, right? Of course not. It’s never easy to change the way a group of people, or even a single person, fundamentally thinks about themselves and their actions. Do women even want this shift? Can our economy support a different family and work structure? Can fair cooperation exist between companies and struggling mothers? If the answer is no to any of these questions – as I suspect might be the case – then feminists like myself would be far better off rallying behind another cause than the 7% difference in wages.

Contact Haley Sims at hsims@stanford.edu.