Many progressive feminists mark “Equal Pay Day” as a sad day, the day that women would have to work into 2021 to catch up with men’s earnings from 2020. Equal Pay Day this year was yesterday, March 24th.
Indeed, if the wage gap were really what it is often presented to be—evidence of widespread discrimination against women—then Equal Pay Day would be more than sad. It would be an outrage. And it would represent widespread violation of existing laws that prohibit discrimination.
But that’s not what the wage gap is at all. The raw wage gap isn’t a measure of “equal pay for equal work.” It’s a comparison of averages that does not account for many factors that can affect pay.
The wage gap is not evidence not of discrimination, but rather evidence for the difference between women and men and their approach to their careers. Namely, the biggest difference is that women more often make the choice of accepting lower pay, slower advancement, and less influence in their workplaces and industries in order to dedicate more of their time and efforts to their families. Often, this isn’t something to mourn, but rather something to applaud.
COVID has complicated all of this. In fact, never (in modern times) has there been a time where this tradeoff was more sharply felt. Millions of women stepped back at work (some getting laid off, some quitting, and some simply struggling along in jobs we’ve managed to keep) because of disruptions to school schedules, childcare arrangements and other social supports.
For many women, this transition has been incredibly difficult, and it has not been a happy, sacrificial choice we’ve made for our families. It has not felt like a choice at all. It has challenged marriages and family dynamics. It has put stress on family budgets. It has created uncertainty about the economic and professional futures of many women.
Many women have experienced increased levels of emotional and mental stress as a result. While we might frame the pandemic’s “increased opportunities for family time” as a silver lining, this hasn’t always been welcome or easy.
Indeed, the entire COVID pandemic has not been welcome or easy for anyone. It’s been a tragedy, and everyone—to varying degrees—has faced reduced freedom and inferior sets of choices as a result. But when push came to shove, women took care of home first. They proctored the virtual school lessons. They breastfed during Zoom meetings. They took care of kids who merely had a runny nose, putting aside other aspirations for the day, because runny noses took on the specter of deadly disease during a year of uncertainty about public health.
But, even before and outside of the COVID pandemic, many women embrace the choice to prioritize their children and families, even if just for a short time during their working years (and even if the choice is not a simple or easy one). This phenomenon, unlike sex-based wage discrimination, is the primary driver of the male-female wage gap.
It follows that if the raw wage gap were reduced to zero, this would represent men and women taking more similar approaches to their careers and families. This is something that many progressives hope for: They hope for a world where there are no differences between women and men (as evidenced by their advancement of the Equal Rights Amendment and the Equality Act, which would both threaten and undermine legal distinctions between women and men, even when these distinctions make sense, e.g. the military draft or sex-segregated spaces).
Would this be so bad?
One could imagine two paths here: One path requires programs like universally available daycare, which might allow more women to approach our careers and jobs “like men.” The alternative path might mean that fathers took more paternity leave, “leaning out” rather than “leaning in” at work, and supporting their wives’ careers in ways similar to how so many women support their husbands’ careers today.
The inconvenient truth for progressives is that, on the whole, women and men don’t prefer either of the above. Daycare is parents’ least preferred option for childcare, both as expressed in surveys and as observed in their behaviors. And even in countries where paternity leave is offered to both parents and encouraged among fathers, fathers take far less leave. In Pew’s most recent survey of American moms and dads, far more working dads (82 percent) than working moms (51 percent) say that working full-time is ideal for them at this point in their lives.
Instead of shaming women (and men) for their preferences and choices around work and family, which often reflect deep, inherent differences between the sexes, we should accept and even celebrate that the wage gap represents that many women, in the U.S. and globally, are willing to trade influence in the workplace and economy for the influence they can have in the lives of their families. If the end of the wage gap meant that women no longer made this trade, our society and families would be worse off, even if Equal Pay Day landed on January 1st.