Cathy Young has a great piece over at RealClearPolitics about President Obama’s latest women’s initiative — the White House Council on Women and Girls. During his remarks at the signing, Obama pointed to the wage gap (“women still earn just 78 cents for every dollar men make”) as evidence of inequalities that the council will address. But Young is correct to ask, “are these inequalities rooted in discrimination and fixable by the government?” In short, no:
Numerous studies show that when differences in training, work hours, and continuity of employment are taken into account, the pay gap all but disappears. Most economists, including liberal feminists such as Harvard’s Claudia Goldin, agree that while sex discrimination exists, male-female disparities in earnings and achievement are due primarily to personal choices and priorities. Women are far more likely than men to avoid jobs with 60-hour workweeks and to scale down their careers while raising children. They are also more likely to choose less lucrative but more fulfilling jobs.
There is an ongoing debate on whether these differences are biological or cultural. Many scientists argue that men in general are innately more competitive and aggressive, while women are more risk-averse, more interested in interpersonal connections and more intensely bonded to small children. (There are, of course, numerous exceptions to these tendencies.) Others stress the role of socialization, pointing out that people’s choices and preferences are influenced by gender stereotypes and cultural expectations from early childhood.
The jury is still out on the nature-vs.-nurture debate; most likely, differences between the sexes are shaped by a mix of biology and culture. Certainly, cultural pressures and double standards persist. A woman is far more likely to encounter societal disapproval if she works long hours and leaves her children in someone else’s care – even if that someone else is the children’s father. A man is far more likely to encounter disapproval if he is not the family breadwinner.
Yet focusing on job discrimination will not help us address these deep-seated prejudices. Indeed, making work-family policy a part of the agenda of the Council on Women and Girls seems to reinforce the stereotype that family issues are a female domain. (Why not a Council on Families instead?)