A popular talking point among feminists is that women are less well-represented at the top in various professions than men and that this is because of discrimination.

In a new City Journal piece headlined “The Plight of the Alpha Female,” Kay Hymowitz acknowledges that women are rare at the top levels in law, finance, academia, and other fields. She notes that only 4 percent of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies are women, while they account for only 9 percent of chief financial officers.  But discrimination is not the culprit.

The real reason women don’t make it to the top is they don’t want to, says Hymowitz. Hymowitz cites a much-discussed piece entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” in the Atlantic. Author Anne-Marie Slaughter left a job at the State Department to spend more time with a troubled child.

Hymowitz writes:

Slaughter stumbled onto a truth that many are reluctant to admit: women are less inclined than men to think that power and status are worth the sacrifice of a close relationship with their children. Academics and policymakers in what’s called the “work/family” field believe that things don’t have to be this way. But nothing in the array of work/family policy prescriptions—family leave, child care, antidiscrimination lawsuits, flextime, and getting men to cut their work hours—will lead women to infiltrate the occupational 1 percent. They simply don’t want to. …

Why do ambitious, educated women moving into their mid-career years, usually in their thirties and early forties, slacken their work pace? The answer doesn’t take a scientist—male or female—to figure out. That’s typically the do-or-die moment for starting a family.

Gender theorists and others see this as unfair. University of California law professor Joan Williams says that such gruelling workplaces are “macho” and argues that the long hours are “systemic discrimination” against women, who are still the ones expected to play a dominant role in child-rearing.

Hymowitz counters:

That analysis may make sense in a gender studies class, but anyone running a business knows the real reason for today’s voracious workplace: a global economy, indifferent to sexual identity, that has intensified competition in just about every industry. Globalization has made continental and international travel a necessary part of business, which tends to displease mothers of young children.

Academics and policy wonks have proposed policies that they say will ease this tension for women. Lengthy paid leave for parents is one. Hymowitz doesn’t go into the effect this would have on businesses, especially in an economic downturn. Such a law could cost jobs, including jobs for women.

And there are other unintended consequences of such laws. Sweden and France have been in the forefront of enacting the kinds of policies designed to make the workplace more woman-friendly:

The conclusion that a number of them have reached provides a textbook case of unintended consequences: the very family policies that make it easier for women to combine work and family discourage them from pursuing career Olympus. In a paper called “Is There a Glass Ceiling in Sweden?,” James Albrecht and colleagues speculate that the country’s maternal benefits are so generous that they “may discourage strong career commitment” by women.

The paper also points out that Sweden’s liberal wage policies, elevating incomes at the bottom of society, make it prohibitively expensive for many ambitious mothers—and mothers still do most of the child care, even in Sweden—to hire outside help during hours when day-care centers are closed. In many countries, including the United States, professional-class dual-income families have become dependent on cheap immigrant labor to mind the kids and clean the house; researchers Patricia Cortés and José Tessada trace the increase in the work hours of highly educated American women to the 1990s, when immigration pushed down the cost of household services.

But maybe the paucity of women at the top isn’t really a problem, as long as it’s the product of their own choices and not discrimination:

Do we really need to regret that so few women want to live this way [working at 70-hour-a-week jobs], treating a baby as a momentary interruption to an all-important job and keeping a foot on the career gas pedal after the kids come?

Discuss among yourselves.