Feminism, Infighting, and the Wage Gap

E-mail Lis

Much has been made of the racist, sexist comments that recently got shock jock Don Imus fired — but it was the unified voices of the black community that ultimately brought him down. And yet, for all of the progress women have made over the years, it often seems that we’re too busy fighting amongst ourselves to achieve such swift justice.

Consider the age-old debate about the wage gap. Carrie Lukas, vice president of policy and economics for the conservative think-tank, the Independent Women’s Forum, recently wrote an op-ed piece for the Washington Post, arguing that there’s nothing wrong with women making 25 percent less, on average, than men. In fact, wrote Lukas, at just 77 cents on the dollar, women are actually getting a bargain.

According to Lukas, it’s the “individual preferences” of women — not the ongoing effects of past discrimination — that account for income disparities between men and women in the workplace.

And why, according to Lukas, do women “choose” to earn less?

“Women, who bear children and traditionally serve as the primary caregivers to their offspring, often feel they face different choices and tradeoffs than men,” Lukas explains in her book, “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Women, Sex, and Feminism.” Acknowledging such tradeoffs is empowering for women, she says, because it allows them to stop feeling “victimized.”

So practically speaking, how do women who welcome such “tradeoffs” make ends meet?

Lukas doesn’t say exactly — but a quote from her book’s promotional materials may shed some light: “Women still tend to prefer men who are breadwinners, who they consider intellectually superior, and who can physically protect them,” goes the talking-point.

Unlike Ms. Lukas, I find nothing “empowering” about the notion of accepting unequal pay for equal work and relying on a man to pick up the slack; nor can I endorse an ideology which suggests women should resign themselves to a life of unequal opportunity. The fact is the traditional paradigm of the bread-winner and the stay-at-home mom has been under renovation for some time now; and as a matter of fairness, employers have an obligation to catch-up.

Women now comprise 49 percent of the American workforce, and are currently out earning their husbands 32.6 percent of the time — up from 23.7 percent in 1987. And wives brought home 34.8 percent of the average family's annual bacon in 2004, up from 26.7 percent in 1980. In another generation, if the trend continues, wives will be contributing half their household incomes — despite the fact that they are earning just 77 cents for every dollar their husbands make.

Lukas also takes aim at “feminist groups” that “like to pretend women can have it all.”
For my part, as a working mother who has recently written a book about women’s rights, I can assure you, I suffer no illusions about “having it all.” Achieving balance between work and family, I have learned, is an ongoing process — and it is up to every individual to make it happen. Nevertheless, by characterizing the desire for economic equality as some fantasy-land, “have it all” agenda, Lukas plays into some of the worst stereotypes about “needy” and “irrational” women — and makes it that much harder for those of us who simply want to get paid for what we’re worth.

Moreover, contrary to the claims of Ms. Lukas, most women do not “choose” to opt out of jobs that pay. According to Joan Williams, co-author of a recent study by Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings, they are “pushed out by workplace inflexibility, the lack of supports, and a workplace bias against mothers.” In fact, according to a 2004 study cited in the report, 86 percent of the women who leave their jobs cite job inflexibility as a key reason behind their departure.

Inflexible work policies are bad for the bottom line as well. “Companies are estimating that it costs them about $80,000 in lost time and training and recruiting costs every time they lose a talented working mom,” says Suzanne Riss, editor in chief of Working Mother magazine.

On a positive note, more and more mid-and senior-level professional women are successfully negotiating flexible work schedules without cutting back income, according to a survey conducted by researchers at the Simmons School of Management in Boston, Mass. In doing so, they are challenging the way both men and women have traditionally managed their careers — and creating new arrangements that could help lessen the impact of looming labor shortages. The study also found that more than 60 percent of the survey’s respondents said they were more loyal to employers offering flexible schedules, telecommutes, and other options.

Even so, the United States lags far behind virtually all wealthy countries with regard to family-oriented workplace policies such as maternity leave, paid sick days and support for breast feeding, according to a new study by Harvard and McGill University. And old-fashioned defeatism re-packaged as female “empowerment” brings us no closer to finding a constructive remedy.

The firing of Don Imus showed us how swiftly change can happen when a community speaks with one determined voice. Nevertheless, if Ms. Lukas and her followers choose to believe they’re getting a bargain at just 77 cents on the dollar, then I suppose that is their prerogative. In the meantime, though, I have no intention of ever selling myself that short.

Lukas Sources

1) There’s nothing wrong with women making 25 percent less ... Lukas op-ed
2) Conservative thinktank
3) According to Lukas, the “individual preferences”
4) “Women, who bear children and traditionally serve as the primary caregivers to their offspring, often feel they face different choices and tradeoffs than men,” Lukas explains in her book…
5) “Victimized” - See page 147 of Lukas book, 2nd full graph, 1st sentence
6) “trade-offs”
7) Lukas’s book’s promotional materials quote
8) Women now compose 49 percent…husbands make
9) Lukas also takes aim at “feminist groups”, ”not a problem that needs solving. See p. 141 of her downloaded book, 4th & 5th graphs
10) Joan Williams quote
11) 86 percent
12) Riss quote
13) Simmons School survey
14) New study by Harvard and McGill University

• E-mail Lis With Your Legal Questions!

Lis Wiehl joined FOX News Channel as a legal analyst in October 2001. She is currently a professor of law at the New York Law School. Wiehl received her undergraduate degree from Barnard College in 1983 and received her Master of Arts in Literature from the University of Queensland in 1985. In addition, she earned her Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School in 1987. Lis is also the author of The 51% Minority — How Women Still Are Not Equal and What You Can Do About It. (Watch the Video) To read the rest of Lis's bio, click here.