In Defense of Family Values and Unequal Pay for Women

August 27, 2010

In the 1950s when women were still second-rate members of the American workforce -- when they were not earning equal pay for a day's work and the opportunities for advancement were still limited, a popular explanation for tolerating such discrimination was that women belonged at home raising families, that men were the breadwinners and needed to be given preference in terms of pay and promotion.  At the time, we all bought in to that. Of course, those times were before the Great Recession when mom wasn't working full-time to support a family while dad had been laid off by the auto industry or unable to find a job in construction.  Ah, the good old days.

Family Values But Not Family Sacrifices

These days, the issue of equal pay for women is not simply limited to how much they are paid per hour or whether the door to the executive suite is still ajar for them.  Today, there are more fundamental issues being raised.  Among the more prominent is whether society should or can ask its female workforce to make economic sacrifices for giving birth and raising families.  As the politically charged term "family values" gains prominence, raising families has blossomed into a moral dilemma for society.  If we value the manner in which our familes are raised and financially supported, then is it fair to simply shift the economic burden onto the woman's shoulders?

In more plain terms, what are the "costs" that women pay in the workplace when they become pregnant, when they go on maternity leave, when they need to opt for a part-time or flex-time schedule in order to attend to their children's needs?  If the solution in generations past was to simply "adjust" the average woman's compensation as a hedge against her likely absences, is that policy still morally defensible when we as a society are now emphasizing family values?  Why are the financial sacrifices solely the mother's or grandmother's to bear?  If we penalize women through lower pay, limited career paths, and barriers to promotion, then what rewards do we similarly offer them when they work two jobs, ruin their health, and deplete their savings for the sake of their families?

A recent New York Times article discussing working women and pay disparity stated:

[O]ver all, full-time female workers make a whopping 23 percent less on average than full-time male workers. What's going on? Men and women are not identical, of course. Many more women take time off from work. Many more women work part time at some point in their careers. Many more women can't get to work early or stay late.

And our economy exacts a terribly steep price for any time away from work - in both pay and promotions. People often cannot just pick up where they have left off. Entire career paths are closed off. The hit to earnings is permanent. The fact that the job market has evolved in this way is no accident. It's a result of policy choices. As Jane Waldfogel, a Columbia University professor who studies families and work, says, "American feminists made a conscious choice to emphasize equal rights and equal opportunities, but not to talk about policies that would address family responsibilities." "Women do almost as well as men today," Ms. Waldfogel said, "as long as they don't have children." . . .

See, "A Labor Market Punishing to Mothers" by David Leonhardt (New York Times, August 3, 2010) at

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- A Stroll Down Memory Lane

Decades and generations ago, the debate was largely nonexistant. Women were -- well -- different. The fairer sex. We called upon them during times of war but then replaced them with the returning men.  There was a woman's role. There was a woman's place. Of course, that role and place never did quite pay the same as the same role and place of a man but, like I said, those were the olden days.  Lots of things have changed.

Consider this quaint piece published decades ago by the U. S. Chamber of Commerce:

Equality, Suffrage and a Fetish for Money
by Brad Peck

[M]ost of the current "pay gap" is the result of individual choice rather than discrimination; but I believe that the overall tone is one of those cultural changes we need to make -- the idea that giving up "pay and promotions" is a "terribly steep price" to pay for time away from work. These are only two of the many things that people value and depending on the weight that you assign to each of your values giving up a little might gain you a lot. Equality is a matter of ensuring equal access to opportunity, not ensuring identical outcomes in some areas depending on which opportunities you choose to take.

. . .

It is true that culturally speaking women are more likely to have to make the tough choices about work-life balance. But as we all seek to fit our values into a dynamic 24/7 economy, let's not overlook the obvious, immediate, power-of-the-individual solution: choosing the right place to work and choosing the right partner at home.

Thankfully, times have changed since the Chamber of Commerce posted that quaint article.  Over the decades, we have learned that unequal pay is rarely something any intelligent employee would opt for -- I mean, come on, in this day and age who in their right mind would prefer that they be paid less than another equally qualified employee?  In the case of women, the Chamber of Commerce writer suggested, lo those many decades ago when such positions were respected, that female workers should not necessarily expect equal pay if they were also going to take time off for such things as maternity leave. Of course, those were the days before "family values" was an issue, so you could sort of get away with suggesting that society and the business community did not have a shared interest in fostering healthy, stable families. You know, "families," as in mom, dad, and children. As in consumers. As in back-to-school sales, family cars, family vacations. As in those consumers who drive our economy.

I sort of smiled when I read the musty musings of the Chamber's writer, who exalts the power of the individual to solve his or her own problems.  Of course, individual solutions aren't necessarily doing that well these days with the Great Recession and all, but, hey, you can't blame some fuddy duddy from the '50s for not getting all the fine points correct. (And before you all send me all those nastygrams, I was born in the early, very early, '50s).  Still, it's hard not to smile, if not laugh, at the awkward suggestion all those years ago by the Chamber that the issue of equal pay is somehow related to "choosing the right place to work and choosing the right partner at home." 

Ultimately, equal pay would seem to be a matter of fairplay, which I always thought was the bedrock of America's capitalism.  An honest day's work for an honest day's pay.  What the Chamber of Commerce didn't quite seem to understand is that sometimes the "choice" to work at home or work part-time or on a flex schedule is not a voluntary option but one that is forced upon women.  If we value families, then why is the economic burden of raising them always pressed upon women at the cost of fair pay and career opportunities?  Whatever happened to the concept of shared sacrifice?

As to what the Chamber of Commerce's writer meant about suggesting a trade off in pay because of the choice of the "right partner at home," is something that I will defer to far better minds.  Apparently, if I chose to marry someone other than my wonderful wife, I would be entitled to more or less income?  Is that what the part of my marriage vows meant when it said "for richer or poorer"?  Gee, I thought they were only talking about docking my wife's pay.  I didn't actually think that there was a financial marriage penalty on men too.  That's not fair!

I thank Bloomberg writer Susan Antilla for bringing this story to my attention.

For an absolutely superb take on the Chamber of Commerce blog and the entire equal-pay issue, you must read

ONE LAST THING: I hope you enjoyed the stroll down memory lane with my references to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's article about equal pay. There's only one problem.  That U.S. Chamber of Commerce article was not written in the last century. It was posted on the Chamber's website as a blog in August 2010.  Think that I'm kidding?  Well, read it here at . And when you're done, you should read this