Plenty of liberal feminists mark Equal Pay Day as a sad event that women would have to work into 2021 to catch up with male earnings from 2020. Indeed, if the wage gap were actually what it is often presented to seem, as evidence of broad discrimination against women, then Equal Pay Day would be more than sad. It would be an outrage that would represent a violation of the existing laws that prohibit discrimination.
But that is not what the wage gap is at all. It is not a measure of equal pay for equal work. It is a comparison of averages which does not account for several factors that can affect pay. It is evidence not of discrimination but rather of the difference between women and men, and their approach to their careers. The key difference here is that women more often make the choice to dedicate more of their time and efforts to their families. This is not something to mourn but rather something to applaud.
The pandemic has clouded all of this. In fact, never in modern times has there been one time when this tradeoff was more sharply felt. Millions of women have taken a step back or were forced out of the economy under coronavirus restrictions and disruptions to vital education and childcare support. Indeed, for so many women, this transition has been incredibly difficult. It has not been a happy sacrificial choice we have made for our families. It has not felt like a choice at all. Many women have further had increased levels of emotional and mental stress as a result.
While we might frame the “increased opportunities for family time” as a silver lining in the pandemic, it has not always been welcome or easy. It has been a tragedy, as everyone has faced reduced freedom and inferior decisions as a result. But when push came to shove, women took care of home first. They proctored online school lessons. They breastfed during virtual meetings. They took care of kids with a runny nose, putting aside other aspirations for the day, because a runny nose takes on the specter of deadly disease with the uncertainty about public health.
But even before the pandemic, many women embraced their choice to focus on their children and families, even if only for a short time during their careers, and even if such a choice is not a simple or easy one. This phenomenon, unlike wage discriminination based on sex, is the primary driver for the gender wage gap. It follows that if the raw wage gap were reduced all the way to zero, this would represent both women and men taking a more similar approach to their careers and families.
This is something that many liberals hope for. They want the world where there are no differences between women and men, as evidenced by their advancement of the Equal Rights Amendment, which would threaten and undermine legal distinctions between women and men, even when these distinctions make more sense, such as for the military draft.
Would this be so bad? One could imagine two roads here. One path needs programs like universal daycare, which would allow some more women to approach our careers and jobs the way men do. The alternative path could mean that fathers start taking more paternity leave, and leaning out rather than leaning in at work, and backing up their wives in their careers in ways similar to how so many women support their husbands now.
The inconvenient truth for liberals is that, on the whole, women and men do not prefer either of the above. Daycare is the least preferred option for parents, as seen with surveys and as observed by their behaviors. Even in countries where paternity leave is given for both parents and encouraged for fathers, fathers continued to take far less leave. For a recent survey by Pew Research Center, more working dads than working moms stated that working full time is ideal for them at this point in their lives.
Instead of shaming women and men for how they approach their careers and families, which often denote inherent differences, we have to accept and even celebrate that the wage gap represents that many women, both in the United States and across the world, are willing to trade influence in their jobs for the influence they can have with the lives of their families. If the end of the wage gap means women are no longer able to make such a trade, then our society and our families would be worse off.
Hadley Heath Manning is policy director at Independent Womens Forum.