The New York Times' David Leonhardt offers these solutions to discrimination against mothers in the workforce. Do they make sense?

600 working mother REUTERS Jean-Marc Loos.jpg

Being a mother has a number of wonderful benefits, but a fat paycheck isn't one of them. While this might not be particularly shocking -- or even troubling -- to many of us, the New York Times' David Leonhardt isn't happy about it. He began complaining about the relative disadvantage mothers have in today's workforce last August. I, then, pointed out that as a society we've chosen this outcome and that it's a symptom of economics, not bias. But Leonhardt must have a soft spot for mothers -- he probably has one. So he reprised his complaint at this week's Aspen Ideas Festival and offered some potential solutions.

Leonhardt's findings aren't about sexism. As he says, it's about "momism." Moms don't make as much money or advance as quickly in their careers as even their childless female counterparts. As I argued, this should be expected: mothers have significant off-the-job obligations due to our choice as a society to generally provide them with primary caregiver responsibility. Since they cannot devote as much of their time, energy, and attention to work, they don't progress as quickly up the corporate ladder. And that's okay: if a woman without primary caregiver responsibility devotes more time, energy, and/or attention to her career, then she should progress faster.

Depsite that logic, Leonhardt wants equal pay and promotion for mothers. A video clip from Leonhardt's talk at Aspen can be found here, but a transcript of the solutions that he offers is below:

I think there are policy solutions. Universal day care, which recognizes that the family isn't what it once was. But I don't think it's just policy. I think it's companies recognizing that there's an enormous pool of untapped and underutilized talent out there in our workforce. It is parents, and it is in particular moms. It's building career ladders that allow you to work four days per week, or allow you to work seven hours a day, or allow you to work eight hours a day and not forfeit your opportunity at big future promotions. Call me an optimist, but I would bet if companies created these ladders, some men would sign up for them as well. I know I would.

Let's consider the two ideas here separately.

The Policy Solution: Universal Day Care

The premise here is that the taxpayers should pay not only for the elementary through high school education of children, but also for their care from virtually the moment they're born. There are a few big practical problems with this idea. First, it would drastically change the current day care industry. Different day care providers in different areas charge different fees for their services. Does the government provide vouchers? Will tax credits work?

Neither of these possibilities seems particularly likely if fair and equal access to day care is sought. Instead the government would have to create public day care facilities, just like you have public schools. Raise your hand if you want the government to take care of your baby. I suspect most people reading this kept their hands down. The government can't even balance its checkbook. I wouldn't let it watch my dog.

Universal day care shifts U.S. child care even further in the collectivist direction. If we had government day care, then from birth until adulthood, the government -- i.e. taxpayers -- would be responsible for a major portion of the costs associated with child rearing and development. Unless you are wealthy and have the means for private schools and day care, here's a snapshot at your kid's life: the child begins in government day care, proceeds through public elementary through high school. Then the kid either attends a public college or is provided subsidized college loans to attend a private college.

Even if you don't have a problem with spreading these costs around to all taxpayers, it isn't great for incentives. Having children is a big responsibility both for the time and monetary commitment involved. If you take away a huge chunk of that burden, then there won't be as great a barrier to having children. That could result in more parents having more children than they reasonably should or having them sooner than they otherwise would. Having kids isn't supposed to be easy, and we shouldn't make parenthood seem like a mere part-time job.

The Business Solution: Stop Valuing Hard Workers

I agree with Leonhardt: it would be totally awesome if we lived in a world where you didn't have to work hard, but still managed to make more money and move up the corporate ladder. So why can't we just will it so? Can't businesses just stop worrying so much about how hard people work and instead focus on equal treatment?

They certainly could -- so long as we don't want to remain a capitalist nation. The very heart of capitalism is the idea that hard work pays off. The incentive for working harder than the next guy (or gal) is the opportunity to make more money and advance your career faster. If you lose that core idea, I'm not sure what the U.S. economy becomes, but whatever it is, it isn't capitalist.

As Leonhardt quips, even men would like to "sign up" for a job where they could work less and make just as much progress in their careers. And that's precisely the problem. The incentive shifts: people won't work as hard, so productivity would fall, but they would expect more. You don't need to be an economist to see that this situation won't work. If productivity declines, so will economic output. Salaries and economic growth would fall. 

And if hard work isn't used as the measuring stick for judging performance in a job, then what is? Instead, there's the intangible measure of talent. But do you pay a talented pinch hitter on a baseball team who only bats once per game as much as your everyday shortstop who might have a slightly lower batting average? I doubt it: you value the indispensable nature of the workhorse.

So it's hard to see why corporations would ever evolve to provide optimal outcomes for those who don't work as hard. Indeed, if there was a mother that was so talented and brilliant that working less shouldn't affect her career path, then it wouldn't. If someone's that good, then her kids won't stand in her way. But the reality is that the extra time spent focusing on one's career isn't just buried in a time sheet and forgotten. That additional effort is an investment that enhances on-the-job skills and effectiveness. Hard work magnifies talent and makes the hard worker even more valuable going forward.

As my previous post argued, there's no grave injustice in the fact that moms aren't paid or promoted as well as non-moms. It's just simple economics at work in a capitalist society. And remember: money and ambition aren't everything. There's great utility and reward in being a primary caregiver. It's certainly possible -- if not a general rule -- that there are modestly paid working mothers out there who are happier than millionaire, workaholic CEOs who don't have as deep of a relationship with their children. Life's all about tradeoffs, and attempts at economic engineering can't change that.

Image Credit: REUTERS/Jean-Marc Loos

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