The Obama administration presents itself as the defender of women. The “Paycheck Fairness” Act is designed to give that impression. And yet the administration doesn’t touch what appears to be the real injustice to working mothers: a system of arbitrary, expensive, and burdensome licensing for businesses that are largely woman-dominated.

In an article with the catchy headline “What if mothers needed licenses?” the Manhattan Institute e21’s Jared Meyer explores the subject of licensing, with special attention to its effects on working mothers. Meyer writes:

Do American mothers face labor market discrimination? The answer is yes, but not in the way most people think. With all the political theater surrounding the misleadingly-titled Paycheck Fairness Act, one area where women face real discrimination is often overlooked—occupational licensing. 

IWF's Sabrina Schaeffer is set to testify before Congress this week about “why legislation like the ‘Paycheck Fairness Act’ won't create equal pay, just more government-largesse.” Meyer points out how the “Paycheck Fairness” Act can actually be used as a cover for addressing the real discrimination working women face every day: occupational licensing. 

Meyer looks at a study on occupational gender bias in occupational licensing by Lindsey McBride and Grant Patty of Utah State University. These are laws that  require people to obtain the government’s permission to work. Their research was presented at the Association for Private Enterprise Education’s 2014 Annual Conference. 

McBride and Patty obtained data for all the jobs that require licenses in Utah. They then looked at occupations that had a median yearly income below $40,000 because they wanted to exclude professionals like doctors, lawyers and accountants that are universally licensed. Of the 13 occupations that fell into the category, the authors then determined the gender of workers in each category.

It appears that women do indeed suffer more than men from these licensing regulations. Meyer sums it up:

Their results are clear—women are most adversely affected by occupational licensing laws in Utah. Approximately 70 percent of the people who needed licenses to work in these professions were women. Of the 13 occupations examined, 9 licensed more women than men and 6 were over 80 percent female. These occupations included dietitians (98 percent female), court reporters (80 percent), cosmetologists (94 percent), and estheticians (96 percent), to name a few. 

But Utah isn’t exceptional, according to Meyer.  He relies on information from the Institute for Justice as further evidence since that organization has defended dozens of cases of working mothers, in mid-range to lower-skilled professions – interior designers, hair stylists – who are affected by expensive and burdensome licensing regulations.

Meyer cites some cases:

In 1999, Dr. JoAnne Cornwell, a San Diego woman who practiced African hair braiding, was in danger of losing her hairstyling business, Sisterlocks. California required cosmetologists to spend 9 months in training and over $5,000 to get the state’s approval to work. Cornwell could not afford the large time and financial costs necessary to receive a license, and doing so would not benefit her work at all. 

California’s compulsory training and fees were especially pointless for African hair braiders since they naturally braid hair by hand—there are no chemicals or dangerous instruments that could pose threats to the public. The classes students would be forced to take did not teach hair braiding, and the techniques taught were damaging to African hair. IJ successfully challenged California’s licensing law in 1999, but the fight against labor market discrimination is far from over. 

My mother is an interior designer in Illinois. Thankfully, she did not try to enter the profession in Nevada, Louisiana, Florida, or the District of Colombia, as she would have needed a license to do so. IJ ranked interior designers as having the most onerous licensing requirements out of all the low- and moderate-skill professions. The average fee required to work in these four jurisdictions is $364. This may seem high, but the real cost is in the average of six years of required experience. Since occupational licensing’s main justification is protecting public safety, one is left wondering why these burdens are so high. I, for one, have never heard of anyone being injured by mismatched pillows or ugly rugs. 

The second most heavily licensed occupation is preschool teachers. According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, 97 percent of early education teachers are women. The discrimination against women continues. 

As Meyer concludes, this licensing is mostly to protect entrenched interests. Licensing is designed in many cases to prevent people from entering a field and competing with established practitioners.

Government economic policies that limit opportunities to work have a disproportionate negative effect on women. 

Overcoming entrenched interests is difficult, but this is no excuse for inaction. States need to focus on rolling back occupational licensing in order to create equal opportunity for our nation’s working mothers trying to support their families. On Mother’s Day, in the year 2014, there is no reason for any level of government to systematically discriminate against women.

When will we see proposed legislation entitled the Licensing Fairness Act?