Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Working Women. Think Again!

Kay Hymowitz is the (right-wing) Manhattan Institute Go-To-Girl as the defender of traditional gender roles and biological gender differences.   She never disappoints.

Her new article in Foreign Policy discusses working women in the US and somewhat around the world and concludes that
a) women can't have it all*
b) women don't want to have it all because of that maternity instinct
c) any governmental attempts to change the sexual division of labor are bound to fail.

As a corollary to those three points she also concludes that the US system, with minimal maternity leave, no real annual vacations, very spotty child-care and so on, is the best of all possible worlds for any oddball ambitious women.  She gets to that conclusion by ignoring statistics from politics, say, and by focusing on statistics on women in management.  When those statistics seem to show that women don't do too well in particular leading positions, well, that's because they choose not to. 

OK.  Let me backtrack a bit.  Hymowitz doesn't discuss working women, in the sense of all women in the labor force.  She mostly talks about women on high career paths.  Because of that, she is able to end her article by asking:
It's possible, of course, that we simply haven't found the right tools to end gender inequality. But it's also possible that, whether for biological or cultural reasons or both, many women are less interested in absolute parity with men than they are in work that gives them plenty of time with their kids. Is that such a bad thing?
If you don't really need money from a job you can make that statement.  If you don't really care who it is whose retirement benefits and old-age security are most affected by their earlier role as the major caretakers of children you can make that statement.  And, of course, if you don't really care about the fact that having plenty of time with the kids might mean a part-time job with few if any benefits you can make that statement.

While reading that bit I thought about the way alimony in divorce is on its way out in the US.  That's not a bad thing if men and women have equal earnings power, if nobody took twenty years off to care for the children and so on.  But combined with the kind of thinking Hymowitz and friends entertain, it would mean additional punishments for that traditional sexual division of labor.

I was also thinking about the circularity of right-wing ideology about women:  That women earn less or end up in fewer places of power is because they choose children over careers.   But women should be at home with their children because the Western civilization depends on it! (And the Afghan civilization etc.,  I guess). 

Still, when women are absent from all sorts of important statistics having to do with talents, skills, fame and power, it's either because women are just less competent or because of that maternal instinct.

 Lamentable, perhaps, but the best of all worlds, really, when it comes down to practicalities.  There's no break in that circle, as far as I can tell, except for the few very unusual selfish go-getters (who write articles on women, say?).

On the deepest level Hymowitz argues that if fifty years of feminism (rather lukewarm in most countries) hasn't completely eradicated traditional gender roles lasting thousands of years, then clearly those traditional roles are permanent.

That's the platform she uses to argue that these data demonstrate failure in that respect:

In Sweden, fathers have long been encouraged to take some parental leave, but in 1995, noting how few of them were actually doing so, the government followed Norway's lead and reserved one month of total parental leave as a use-it-or-lose-it month just for fathers. The reform was at least nominally successful: The average father took off 35 days, a little more than the month offered. In 2002, the government went further, making two full "daddy months" of parental leave nontransferable to moms. Men took off an average of 47 days, still considerably less than the total available. Then in 2008, dissatisfied with the remaining large gender gap in the leave taken by dads versus moms, the government introduced yet another reform: the "gender equality bonus." Under this law, the more couples shared leave time, the more money they would get. Amazingly, the reform had no impact. According to official statistics, women still took 76 percent of leave days in 2011. The long-term effects of Sweden's parental-leave policy, in other words, have been negligible, all the more so when you consider how many women gravitate toward part-time jobs.

Her article doesn't give references so I cannot check the details of the data she gives in most cases, but in this particular case it seems natural that women would take 76% of the leave days Sweden offered in 2011.  It was the women, after all, who gave birth and needed the medical recovery from that.  That men took 24% of the leave days is a pretty fantastic thing against that background.  A fifty-fifty split seems unrealistic.

Hymowitz' basic assumption is that enough time has passed for us to be able to judge all these "social engineering experiments."  But that's  an odd reading. 

Social norms change very slowly.  That we can see clear change in gender norms since the 1960s suggests that at least some of the gendered division of labor is based on such norms.  And as many feminists have written, the second wave of feminism had some successes in the public sphere but never really got to the question of the private sphere.  

Fathers now do much more hands-on care of their children than was the case fifty years ago.  That this is still less than what mothers do is not necessarily evidence of us having reached some biologically determined maximal amount of gender equality.  The process may be continuing at its own slow pace.

Or as someone said:  Progress moves funeral by funeral.

I wish I could go through all the references Hymowitz uses in her article.**  The lack of citations makes it impossible.  But I note that she compares different countries without taking into account the historical dimensions (or some cultural differences, such as people living together without being formally married).  To evaluate where women are today in, say, Norway, we really need to know where they were fifty years ago, how the institutions and cultures of the various  countries differ and so on.  Even aspects such as working for the public vs. private sector mean different things in different countries in terms of prestige, maternity leave availability and earnings.

Her section on discrimination as unimportant is interesting.  For instance, she argues that we cannot deduce the level of sexism of a society from its gender gap because in some sexist countries only a few women are working and they are likely to get what comparable men do!  Thus, no gender gap could mean humongous sexism.

But that's of course the reason why economic studies of discrimination control for all sorts of relevant factors, such as the level of education of men and women and so on, and that's also why international comparisons usually try to compare countries which are economically and culturally as similar as possible in all other aspects.  And, finally, that's why such studies don't look at only earnings data but also at hiring, firing and promotions.

She concludes the discrimination section by stating this:

 Given a choice between a woman of childbearing age, who might well take a year off in the near future, and an equally talented young man who would take maybe a month off, many executives -- male or female -- would probably hire the latter.

I laughed a bit, because what she describes in that statement IS discrimination (which she argues doesn't explain anything).  It's called statistical discrimination:  Treating a member of a demographic group as if that member had the average (real or assumed) characteristics of the group.

But that statement also crystallizes the problem of assuming that the care of children naturally belongs to women.  That assumption has consequences, and the consequences ultimately make women poorer than men.  It is closely linked to the idea that children somehow are a private responsibility of women when it comes to discussions about gender roles but that having lots of them is a public responsibility of women when it comes to race wars and other stuff Lou Dobbs recently taught us.

Ultimately Hymowitz' article is all about choice vs. constraints.  Hymowitz argues that women choose their lives in a way which just happens to make them less likely to be in positions of power, that men choose their lives in a way which just happens to make them less likely to have much of a family life but lots of public sector power and so on.  It's like choosing chocolate ice-cream over vanilla, and the government should stay out of it.   And probably women just like chocolate better and men like vanilla better, and who are we to judge those choices?

That's the pure choice paradigm.  From that point of view children are not something that are needed for the perpetuation of the species, not the future workers, caretakers, scientists and artists of the society.  Because children are a private choice, like ice-cream, and because on some level we think of them as women's responsibilities, it's perfectly fine not to have maternity leaves or family benefits or whatever.

But the pure choice paradigm, paradoxically, is usually attached to the assumption that we really have no choice at all!  We are programmed, hard-wired, to choose one way, depending on our sex.  Now twist your brain around that and how it leads to free-markets being the king and no government intervention, not even maternity leaves.

What is missing from all that, of course, are the constraints within which we make our choices.  Those are not identical for men and women, as Hymowitz' own statement about statistical discrimination demonstrates.  Institutions that we still live under were created for a world in which workers were assumed to be male with a full support staff at home.  Labor markets assign the whole cost of child-bearing to women, except when laws stop them from doing so.

In a wider sense, the culture constrains all of us.  How boys and girls are brought up and trained for their gender roles constrains us.  The popular culture tells us stories relevant for our gender roles.  Our families build expectations about our gender roles (such as that women will change their names when marrying).  All those effects are like the drops of a continuous rain, and create a society where you may have to swim up-stream if you disagree with your assigned role in life.

To what extent any of this is biological depends on how we interpret biological effects.  On some level the cultures human beings create are naturally limited by human biology.  On another level we are clearly capable of immense flexibility, of tremendous cultural changes.  I think the jury cannot make a conclusion of the possible biological limits to gender equality in 2013.  People might one day laugh at anyone even assuming that might be the case, just as I have laughed at reading some very old treatises on the same topic.

*The "have-it-all" argument has become inane, by the way.  I see people writing that neither men nor women can have it all but that men are realistic about that.  Yet the original meaning of the term was that people should have the right to have both children and challenging careers, and that women shouldn't have to choose between the two.  

**For just one example why looking at the references matter, Hymowitz states:
Indeed, the World Economic Forum (WEF) ranks the United States eighth globally on gender equality in economic participation and opportunity, ahead of Sweden, Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Iceland.
That's one of the four sub-indices in the overall index.  On the overall index US ranks 22nd, well behind those other countries the quote lists.  And the countries ahead of the US on the economic participation and opportunity sub-index?

They are Mongolia, Bahamas, Burundi, Norway, Malawi, Lesotho and Luxembourg!  Whatever that sub-index measures, it seems not to measure just gender equality.