Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Why do a right-wing legislator and a French feminist agree about the wage gap?

Wisconsin Sen. Glenn Grothman

Yesterday, a Facebook friend from Wisconsin posted a link to the story below, commenting, "Really? Here we go again.”

Wisconsin State Senator Says Women Are Paid Less Because ‘Money Is More Important For Men’

I clicked on the link to Think Progress, ready to start fuming over the latest Republican anti-woman idiocy. And sure enough, here was news that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker had repealed the state’s equal pay law. Yep, plenty to be enraged about.

But what about that ridiculously stupid quote by the faintly Gingrichy looking state Sen. Glenn Grothman? I initially assumed he was referring to the antiquated idea that men need money more "because they have families to support." Instead, Grothman declared that the existing wage gap results from women prioritizing childrearing over breadwinning.
“Take a hypothetical husband and wife who are both lawyers,” he says. “But the husband is working 50 or 60 hours a week, going all out, making 200 grand a year. The woman takes time off, raises kids, is not go go go. Now they’re 50 years old. The husband is making 200 grand a year, the woman is making 40 grand a year. It wasn’t discrimination. There was a different sense of urgency in each person.”
Now this is truly horrifying. Really, deeply horrifying. But it's not because Grothman’s quote is so idiotic.

It's because I agree with him.

I rarely find myself siding with a Republican these days about anything, especially regarding women. Especially a Wisconsin legislator, one who would dismiss a wage-gap study by calling the nonpartisan American Association of University Women "a pretty liberal group.” I’m nodding along with this guy? Just kill me now.

Oh, I don’t totally concur with Grothman—in the Daily Beast story that Think Progress quoted, Grothman said, “What you’ve got to look at, and Ann Coulter has looked at this, is you have to break it down by married and unmarried. … (then) the differential disappears.” Oh god, please tell me I’m not agreeing with anything Ann Coulter ever said.

Luckily, no. Grothman and, presumably, Coulter are both wrong. The AAUW study found that even after controlling for marital status, hours worked, number of children and all kinds of other factors, there was still an unexplained 5-percent difference in the earnings of male and female graduates one year after graduation, and an unexplained 12-percent gap after 10 years in the workforce.

But let’s face it. That’s not the full wage gap (which is 23 percent). And Grothman’s quote about the lawyer couple is, unfortunately, supported by simple logic. If a woman drops out of the workforce while her husband keeps making money—earning raises, getting promoted—then down the line, when she eventually returns to work, there’s a good chance she’ll be earning less than he does. And in some way that gap, as Grothman says, resulted from “a different sense of urgency in each person.”

What that doesn’t explain is where the “sense of urgency” comes from.

As a group, women unquestionably do spend less time working—for pay, it's important to stress—than men do. Stay-at-home mothers outnumber stay-at-home fathers more than 30 to one. Research by economist Karine Moe and anthropologist Dianna Shandy, both of Macalester College, showed that even when mothers don’t drop out of the paid workforce entirely, they often sacrifice earnings on behalf of their children: they work part time, go into lower-paying careers with flexible hours, waive promotions to more time-consuming jobs.

Meanwhile, even as we liberal, progressive, feminist women get all up in arms over Grothman’s ill-informed sexism, we (some of us, anyway) are applauding a French feminist intellectual for saying essentially the same thing.

French feminist philosopher Elisabeth Badinter
In her new book The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women (a best-seller in Europe) Elisabeth Badinter argues that today's mothers sacrifice careers and self-fulfillment for unnecessarily time-intensive nurturing involving lengthy breastfeeding, attachment parenting, providing children with nearly constant availability and attention.

I haven’t read The Conflict, though judging by what I have read about it, including a New Yorker profile of Badinter, I probably wouldn't agree with every single thing she says. But overall, Badinter makes a good point. And she’s addressing the kind of mothers who typically wouldn’t be caught dead agreeing with right-wing Republican senators.

Just moments after my Facebook friend posted the Grothman story, another Facebook friend posted a link, with favorable comment, to a Slate blog item about Badinter’s book. Feminist writer Amanda Marcotte examines “the taboo around criticizing the oppressive nature of competitive mommy devotion” reflected in the anticipated backlash against Badinter’s ideas, mainly from progressives defending women’s choices.
“The problem," Marcotte writes,"is that said choices are usually made on pain of being considered bad, unnatural mothers if you opt out of them and choose to keep a bit of your life and body for yourself."
Now, Grothman and Badinter disagree about one really important thing. Grothman implies that this decision comes from within; he seems to feel we females are naturally hardwired to care less about money than mothering. Badinter blames mothers’ behavior on parenting trends and external pressures. Grothman may be partly right—it's possibe women are somewhat more inclined that way by evolution and biology—but the impulse can’t all be innate, or how do you explain our spending more time with our kids than our mothers and grandmothers did?

Research shows that modern mothers as a group devote 40 percent more time to their children than mothers in 1965—even though we also spend way more time at paid work. The study found that employed mothers carve time from other activities—housework, leisure, sleep—to devote to their children. Yet half said they felt they still weren’t doing enough with their kids.

As the pressure builds, it stands to reason, women will want to  cut back on paid work, or give it up entirely. Sure enough, a 2007 Pew Research study found that only 21 percent of working mothers want full-time jobsdown from 10 years earlier, when 32 percent liked the idea of working full time. Preference for part-time work was up over that same period, from 48 percent to 60 percent. (And this is no grass-is-greener situation: stay-at-home mothers became less interested over that decade in working outside the home, full or part-time.) Among men, meanwhile, a solid 72 percent say full-time work is ideal.

It's undeniable that women, as both Grothman and Badinter say, feel more compelled than men to sacrifice pay for time with their children. The reasons are complex, multifaceted and, I suspect, involve a mix of internal and external motivators. They deserve much further study. There simply isn’t enough honest public discussion about this stuff.

Wait—what?   Don’t we talk about this stuff pretty much constantly? After all, the so-called “mommy wars” (the supposed battles between working and at-home mothers) certainly get their share of media coverage. So does “helicopter parenting,” the idea that today's parents spend too much time controlling every moment of their kids’ lives. But both of these discussions typically center on how these choices might affect the child, not the parent (in the latter case, children are perceived to be warped by too much coddling, but the effect on mothers' lives and livelihoods is generally not part of the discussion).

These media obsessions distract from other real, pressing issues: like whether children really are such delicate flowers that they require (or are harmed by!) constant parental attention; how much financial security mothers should be expected to sacrifice to provide it; why it’s mostly mothers, not fathers, who make such sacrifices; and why as a culture we encourage women to make them without fully connecting their “choice” to its potential results, including women’s far greater likelihood than men to live in poverty.

Bashing Republicans is fun and usually warranted. But in this case a bumbling Wisconsin right-wing state lawmaker and an esteemed French feminist intellectual are at least somewhere on the same page. And their point is worth closer examination.

1 comment:

  1. I get really mad at the idea that because I'm female, I'm somehow more interested in being a devoted parent. I'm not particularly interested in parenting, honestly. But how was I to know that before I had a child? There is so much about the emotional and physical tole of parenting that no one can adequately describe to someone who isn't yet a parent.

    So, after you've had this child, yes, you feel obligated to do your absolute best. And as you go along, you find out that not only does society expect you (the mother) to be the primary parent, but you're so much better at multi-tasking than your husband that you pretty much HAVE to be the primary parent. Otherwise nothing would get done.

    I can completely understand why some women quit their jobs as their children become school age --between trying to support your child emotionally as they go through the tweens and teens, and trying physically to keep up with school paperwork and activities, there isn't time for a career unless you sacrifice time somewhere else.

    Not only does our society favor men, but I think biology does too --somehow fathers manage to stay so much more detached from parenting. I don't know why, but I certainly experience it.