Why Working Mothers Fall Behind

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New data shows that, despite feminists' best efforts, women have still failed to reach equality in the job market -- to an extent. While women without children are holding their own against men, those who have children continue to fall behind. David Leonhardt from the New York Times explores this phenomenon, which he views as a problem. But it is really something that should concern us, or just a symptom of the choices we make as a society?

Here's Leonhardt on the study:

A recent study of business school graduates from the University of Chicago found that in the early years after graduating, men and women had "nearly identical labor incomes and weekly hours worked." Men and women also paid a similar career price for taking off or working part time. Women, however, were vastly more likely to do so.

As a result, 15 years after graduation, the men were making about 75 percent more than the women. The study -- done by Marianne Bertrand, Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz -- did find one subgroup of women whose careers resembled those of men: women who had no children and never took time off.

Leonhardt describes this as a problem and searches for solutions. But calling this a problem is analogous to complaining that action movies with flimsy writing are more popular than brilliantly crafted art house films. We use our free will to make choices based on our preferences, and that doesn't always result in the sort of world that philosophers might imagine would be best.

For example, let's redefine the disparity that the studies point out. Imagine there was no classification of men or women, just primary caregivers and primary professionals. Each family with children has one of each. Would anyone really care if primary caregivers didn't climb the corporate ladder as quickly as primary professionals if gender weren't involved? Wouldn't that just make logical sense? If men more often take on the primary professional role, consequently working more intensely and taking fewer vacations than women, then they should be promoted more aggressively.

In this case, gender is actually coincidental to the issue outlined above. Imagine if society developed differently instead. What if men regularly took paternity leave, while women returned immediately to work without significant time off? What if men chose to work part time to make sure they were at the house when the kids arrived home from school, while women preferred to work full time? What if men drove the children to soccer practice, while women worked late on the presentation for tomorrow's board meeting?

Certainly, there are households where the couple takes on these non-traditional gender roles today -- but they're the exception, rather than the norm. Should we lament that society hasn't embraced such progress towards equality? Maybe. But there's also a possibility that most men and women in traditional gender roles are perfectly content with the current arrangement. After all, if they aren't, then it's often within their power to live their lives differently.

Of course, this logic sort of breaks down when you consider single mothers -- but it doesn't entirely. In a similar sense, society could have evolved where single fathers were common. It just hasn't. Are men blameworthy for not caring more about their children than their careers? Perhaps. But taking the contrary, maybe single mothers should be applauded for believing that it's more important to make sure their children have their strong parental influence than striving in business.

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Daniel Indiviglio was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 through 2011. He is now the Washington, D.C.-based columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He is also a 2011 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow through the Phillips Foundation. More

Indiviglio has also written for Forbes. Prior to becoming a journalist, he spent several years working as an investment banker and a consultant.
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