Choices

I don’t know why I read or listen to political commentaries, especially in an election year. It doesn’t matter what flavor the commentary is, or whose political objectives they are trying to sell, political commentaries usually leave me with high blood pressure and a pounding headache. As I explode in my frustration at the latest factoid cited, Cierra shakes her head and wonders, “why, do you insist on talking to the newspaper or yelling at the radio.” But I continue to listen because I believe my participation in the process matters and because the decisions made in the halls of congress and the state capitols around the country impact and alter the daily lives of all of us.

Sunday, I read a commentary in one of my local newspapers by Katherine Kersten. (http://www.startribune.com/opinion/commentaries/167369255.html) Like commentators tend to do, no matter their political party affiliation, she crafted an argument, well supported by data, or ‘facts’ as they often term them. And, as usual, only data or ‘facts’ were used that supported her particular point of view. Her article debated whether there was an assault on women by Republicans or, as she argued, the assault was really one by the Obama administration whose policies, in her estimation, sought to undue all of the advances women have made in recent years. It is not my desire to debate the broader issue of which party has the best interests of women. I will say that I dream of public dialogue in which the conversation could move to a deeper level that allowed for a nuanced discussion. It’s too easy and simple to say, “Women now hold 51 percent of white-collar management and professional jobs” and, therefore, women are doing fine and men are the ones losing. First, it sets up a dichotomy that says the dynamic among men and women is one that necessarily is about one losing and one winning. Adam and Eve set us on that course when they decided to take a bite out of that apple.

Secondly, I think it would be more beneficial and we could move the conversation forward if we acknowledged that yes, women have made great strides in the last three decades or more in the workforce, and yet, in 2011 only 3.8% of CEO positions and 8.7% of CFO positions of the Fortune 500 were held by women.(http://dalmasetto.com/pdfs/US_labour_stats.pdf)  And, that even as women have made strides in education and employment, significant numbers of young men fail to finish high school and therefore, never have an opportunity to pursue higher education. Political sound bites and commentaries leave little room for that kind of nuanced discussion—a discussion that could look more closely at how women and men are faring in the economic landscape of 2012. Okay, so maybe this sounds like one of my rants at the radio. But here is what I really wanted to talk about today.

In her article, Kersten makes this comment: “In fact,” (there’s that word again) “the wage gap essentially disappears in “apples to apples” comparisons of the earnings of women with and without children. Women with children tend to choose hours, occupations and flexible work environments that result in lower earnings, while childless women earn virtually the same as their male counterparts on average.”

There are a number of things I question in this statement, but there is one word that flashes in my head like a blazing neon sign: choose. Here are a few of the questions that come to mind as I think about choice, motherhood and employment:

  1. Why don’t men with children tend to choose hours, occupations and flexible work environments? I know many do, but are the impacts of those choices similar for men as for women? In my own context, female professors feel greater pressure to not let their parental responsibilities get in the way of their work responsibilities and are often hesitant to ask for greater flexibility and are often critiqued by students and colleagues if it seems like they aren’t carrying their full load. I have, on the other hand, observed male professors who are fathers, seeking similar flexibility, lauded for their ‘commitment to their children.
  2. Is it choice, or necessity that puts women with children in lower paying jobs? Are there factors at play in the economy and society that make the ‘choice’ for mothers? For example, the cost of childcare, when weighed against potential earnings often lead women to make the ‘choice’ to work in jobs with flexible hours, or to work part-time, to avoid paying for childcare. That isn’t the whole picture, for sure, but it is part of the equation. These choices have long-term implications for lifetime earnings, health insurance and retirement benefits.
  3. Women ‘choose’ occupations that pay less? What about a discussion about why the occupations women choose pay less? Is it because the jobs done primarily by women aren’t valued as much? Or maybe it’s a bigger issue about power and dominance? As I noted above, many men are in low-paying jobs because of a lack of education and many ‘choose’ to be in what are now becoming lower wage jobs, such as manufacturing and the auto industry. Sometimes it is not about choice, but about have no choice.

It’s time for another political commentary on NPR. I think I am going to go yell at the radio.