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Today is "Equal Pay Day:" the 50th anniversary of the passage of the "Equal Pay Act" which, according to John F. Kennedy and most of his successors, was supposed to be the moment when society finally became equal and women earned precisely as much as men for the same jobs.
Today, feminists across the country will bemoan the fact that women still earn something around 77% of what men do ($.77 for every dollar men earn), harkening back to the good old days when bra-burners and NOW founders were marching through the streets demanding that their paychecks be as fat as their male companions who were, at that time, working for a living rather than prattling on about working for a living. Is their number true? Partially, but only if you give them the "retro" benefit of not taking what women have to say seriously enough to delve into the mechanics of their argument.
The 77% figure only works to describe the difference between what men and women earn in this country if you assume that all other factors between men and women are equal, instead of merely what they get paid on paper over the course of their careers. In order to achieve that 77% number, we need to forget that women drop out of the work force to raise children, have a higher tendency to work part-time and in jobs that require less risk, ask for raises and promotions less often, and that women routinely work fewer hours than men.
So, technically, if we were to boil the problem down to only one factor, it isn't the persistent existence of a sexist and Patriarchical state of affairs, it's probably that horrific scourge of humanity: that is, that we insist on making more humans.
The Labor Department defines full-time as 35 hours a week or more, and the "or more" is far more likely to refer to male workers than to female ones. According to the department, almost 55% of workers logging more than 35 hours a week are men. In 2007, 25% of men working full-time jobs had workweeks of 41 or more hours, compared with 14% of female full-time workers. In other words, the famous gender-wage gap is to a considerable degree a gender-hours gap.
The main reason that women spend less time at work than men—and that women are unlikely to be the richer sex—is obvious: children. Today, childless 20-something women do earn more than their male peers. But most are likely to cut back their hours after they have kids, giving men the hours, and income, advantage.
One study by the American Association of University Women found that around 23% of the female workforce with college degrees had dropped out of the workforce completely to raise childen within ten years of graduation. Another 17% of the women polled had scaled back hours or gone to part-time positions to accomodate their families. On the other side of the coin? Less than 2% of men dropped out of the work force to raise families or be Mr. Mom. What about women with graduate degrees? Less than half of the women surveyed with MBAs had left the workforce within ten years. 95% of men were still fully employed. And the number of mid-career, college educated women who choose to leave the workforce is steadily increasing.
And, of course, there are other factors. According to a 2011 White House report, the choices women make in terms of employment have an effect on their earnings.
Let's say, for the sake of argument, that there is a discrepancy. These feminists argue that it exists because of sexism without addressing the "equal work" part of the argument. But look at the careers women choose compared to men. They are generally less dangerous, lower-paying, require less travel, are more frequently part-time and more likely to be volunteer work, according to the 2011 White House report "Women in America." Not only is their work "not equal" on average, which closes the alleged gap significantly, but it seems to be a conscious choice.
To hammer home the point, in 2012 the Census Bureau released data demonstrating that single women's pay has outstripped their male counterpart's pay in metropolitan areas of the country. So does sexism only start after women wed?
There are, of course, cultural factors that determine how women choose careers. Many feminists would argue that a world that embraces outdated gender stereotypes pushes women into lower paying careers and pressures women to stay at home with children, even if they'd prefer to have a career, and that may be true, at least to some extent. But across the globe, even when massive, government-sponsored family leave acts are employed in a vast social welfare net - which is at least one proposed feminist solution to the "problem" of staying home to raise children, even part time - women still choose to avail themselves of part-time, rather than full-time opportunities (and, weirdly, those social welfare nets don't correct the "wage gap." In countries like Iceland and Sweden, where the programs feminists yearn for are already in place, have higher wage gaps than the US).
The American Psychological Association may have actually come the closest to figuring out why women aren't making as much as men: they don't necessarily want to. That's not to say that women are actively turning down the opportunity to explore their own abilities and pursue equality in the workforce, its just that when women make the choices that maximize their own happiness, they choose to balance work and family life - and are mentally healthier for it.
According to the study, "Mothers' part-time employment: Associations with mother and family well-being" (which was published recently in the American Psychological Association's"Journal of Family Psychology"), being employed has multiple benefits for moms -- and for their families. After interviewing hundreds of mothers repeatedly over the course of a decade, the researchers found that those who worked 32 hours per week or less were more sensitive to their kids' needs, less likely to have symptoms of depression, and more likely to split household duties with their spouses than mothers who were not employed.
It's not to say that we don't have other areas where inequality is still painfully obvious, but why waste time trying to legislate an outcome that isn't necessarily a solution to, well, anything? Well, anything except, perhaps to the problem of long term employment for more bureaucrats in Washington DC, and to the problem of what thesis to build that Womens' studies Masters degree on, of course.
Fifty years of John F. Kennedy's law have shown us not that businesses should be forced to pay women more even when it makes no sense to do so (or, worse, is impossible given the choices women make when seeking education and employment), but that government should be less involved in the choices Americans make when it comes to what is best for themselves and their families.
In fifty years, government hasn't been able to erase a perceived national "pay gap," but all other factors being equal, the free market and the sheer will of the nation's women has, and in some cases, has shifted the pay disparity the other direction. Believing in that power, and not the power of the Executive Branch seems to be the key to achieving real progress in the realm of women's liberty.
Plus, the last thing a real feminist wants is to rely on an all-powerful, mostly male body to dictate how much they should earn...right?