This house believes that a woman's place is at work—opposing remarks
Opposing remarks for an online debate

Article Highlights

  • The verdict that a woman’s place is at work is every bit as repressive as saying her place is in the home.

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  • Women do not have an assigned place. In free societies, they choose where they wish to be.

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  • Most mainstream economists find that pay disparities are almost entirely the result of women's life preferences

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Women do not have an assigned place. In free societies, they choose where they wish to be. For at least 5m women in America, that happens to be in the home as full-time mothers. What is wrong with that? Thanks to the historical success of classical equity feminism, women no longer have to conform to a rigid code about how to live.

In the 1970s, during the early days of the modern feminist revolution, some egalitarians dreamed of a fully androgynous, “gender-integrated” society, where sex roles would disappear. They were not satisfied with equality of opportunity; for them, equality of results was the ideal. That ideal has never been realised. Human nature got in the way. Gender roles persist even under conditions of radical freedom. To give one example, according to a 2009 Pew Research Center survey, “A strong majority of all working mothers (62%) say they would prefer to work part time … An overwhelming majority [of working fathers] (79%) say they prefer full-time work. Only one-in-five say they would choose part-time work.” In the pursuit of happiness, men and women take somewhat different paths.

"When most mainstream economists consider the wage gap, they find that pay disparities are almost entirely the result of women's different life preferences." --Christina Hoff SommersBut the 1970s egalitarians are still with us. They are found in women’s studies departments and the major women’s advocacy groups. For them, the fact that so many seemingly free women give priority to home and family is proof that women remain second-class citizens. Now that overt discrimination is against the law, they blame unseen but powerful forces such as “unconscious bias”, “hostile climates” and “internalised oppression” for women’s choices. “Persistent stereotypes”, says the National Organization for Women, “steer women and men toward different education, training and career paths.” Other, more straightforward explanations—such as the possibility that the sexes, taken as groups, are different—are ruled out a priori.

Hunter College psychologist Virginia Valian offers campus workshops (made possible by a $3.9m grant by the National Science Foundation) in which she explains how illusive “gender schemas” condemn women to the domestic sphere. A gender schema is a socially constructed stereotype about how the sexes differ. Ms Valian says: “In white, Western middle-class society, the gender schema for men includes being capable of independent, autonomous action … The gender schema for women includes being nurturant, expressive, communal, and concerned about others.” To achieve a gender-fair society, Ms Valian urges that we eliminate conventional schemas by breaking the special connection between women and nurture. She concludes, “Egalitarian parents can bring up their children so that both play with dolls and trucks … From the standpoint of equality, nothing is more important.”

That is a hard sell. Even most feminists do not buy the boys-must-play-with-dolls rhetoric any longer. Furthermore, American and British women are among the freest, best-educated and most self-determining people in the world. Their consciousness has been raised. It seems more than a little matronising to suggest they have been manipulated into their life choices. In any case, on what grounds can the egalitarians deny that their own preferences are driven by just another set of internalised dogmas, stereotypes or unconscious schemas?

But what about the pay gap? What about the millions of women who resort to full-time motherhood because of a hostile workplace where they are cheated out of 24% of their salary or forced into low-paying jobs in the “pink ghetto”? These are myths. Many political leaders, journalists and concerned citizens believe them because a relentless women’s lobby spends millions of dollars every year propping them up with incomplete studies. The truth, by contrast, has no lobby.

When most mainstream economists consider the wage gap, they find that pay disparities are almost entirely the result of women's different life preferences—what men and women choose to study in school, where they work, and how they balance their home and career. A thorough 2009 analysis of wage-gap studies, commissioned by the US Department of Labor, looked at more than 50 peer-reviewed papers and concluded that the wage gap “may be almost entirely the result of individual choices being made by both male and female workers”. The women’s groups need to show, not dogmatically assert, that these individual choices are not truly free. And they need to explain why, by contrast, the life choices they promote are the authentic ones—what women truly want, and what will make them happier and more fulfilled.

The verdict that a woman’s place is at work is every bit as repressive as saying her place is in the home.

Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at AEI.

 

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