The New York Times article should have been viewed as good news for the women it was describing: It described research that found there was “no gender gap in the financial rewards for working extra-long hours. For the most part, women who work extreme hours get paid as much as men who do.”
A clear victory for equality—and yet the tone of the April 26 story was far from positive. “Women Did Everything Right. Then Work Got ‘Greedy,’” the headline stated. That’s because the researchers found that far fewer women want to work those punishing hours, especially once they have children. “Twenty percent of fathers now work at least 50 hours a week,” the study noted, “and just 6 percent of mothers do.” Not surprisingly, this divergence leads to differences in money earned and in the division of responsibilities at home.
Something can be fair even if it’s not perfectly equal, and the consequences of life choices such as the ones the Times was describing are a good example. The piece profiled one couple, both lawyers in New York with two young children, and the choices they’ve made as a family to structure their work and family lives to maximize their income. He works long hours and as a result earns a good salary; she cut back to working a few days a week so she can be the lead parent at home. They made this choice because the return on the investment of time for one parent working longer hours was greater than two parents working fewer hours. If their roles were reversed (which they are in some families), feminists would be praising them as an enlightened, ideal modern family.
But feminist ideology has succeeded in persuading a great many people that marriage and child-rearing is a zero-sum game that women always lose, which means someone or something must be to blame. In this case, it’s work itself. “New ways of organizing work reproduce old forms of inequality,” the authors of the study, Youngjoo Cha and Kim Weeden, concluded.
Does it? Decades of research have shown that while men and women who graduate with similar degrees in fields such as law or business earn about the same amount at first, a gap soon appears, usually once women have children. The gap is explained by the fact that, on average, women choose to work fewer hours per week and take more time out of the workforce than men do. As economists Marianne Bertrand, Claudia Goldin, and Lawrence Katz found in a study comparing male and female MBAs, “some MBA mothers, especially those with well-off spouses, slow down in the labor market within a few years following their first birth.” By contrast, women who do not have children or who choose to focus on their career (and work the punishingly long hours that many elite careers demand) do as well as their male peers.
But since many women are making choices that feminist-minded academics and the Times think they shouldn’t, this reasonable trade-off for families is taken as evidence of a broader patriarchal conspiracy. Consider the ideological worldview baked into economist Claudia Goldin’s observation to the Times: “To maximize the family’s income but still keep the children alive, it’s logical for one parent to take an intensive job and the other to take a less demanding one. It just so happens that in most couples, if there’s a woman and a man, the woman takes the back seat.”
Why is parenthood considered the “less intensive” job? Many people wouldn’t describe it thus, nor would they consider raising their own children akin to taking a “back seat” in the family. In fact, given the clear advantage that children with involved parents gain from that care, if it’s an option, what’s wrong with a family deciding it works best for them? If the only “fair” outcome is for both partners to be able to maximize earnings, where does that leave the kids?
Goldin’s remark, like the negative tone of the Times story, gives pride of place to paid work over the contributions of unpaid labor in the home—another evergreen source of feminist resentment.
Lately, squabbling about the proper division of domestic responsibilities (otherwise known as the Chore Wars) has intensified gender resentment on both sides, although you’re more likely to hear complaints about it from women than men. It’s why there’s a market for books with titles like It’s Not You, It’s the Dishes and why former First Lady Michelle Obama was praised for publicly complaining that her husband never picks up his dirty socks.
The most recent salvo is by Darcy Lockman, who explored “what ‘good’ Dads get away with” in the New York Times. Lockman, who has just published a book about the “myth of equal partnership,” is upset that men, including her own husband, have failed to pitch in equally around the house. She denounces the “largely successful male resistance” to folding laundry and getting the children to bed. She paints a portrait of the modern man—and especially the self-described enlightened liberal man—as by turns oblivious, entitled, and defensive about how little he does. “If anything is going to change,” she concludes, “men have to stop resisting.”
Resisting what? It would seem that, if one person is working really long hours to earn money to support a family, it is fair for the other partner to take on the burden of housekeeping and child care—as long as that’s what she want to do. This kind of work-life balance should not be considered a “gendered” decision per se. It’s just that, for decades, women themselves have reported a greater preference for being home with their children, or for flexible or part-time work arrangements, than men. The suggestion that this is a conspiracy by men against women only breeds resentment on both sides: among women who think they are doing more than they should have to at home, and among men who understandably assume that working really long hours is also a form of sacrifice for the family’s common good.
It’s a testament to how thoroughly the feminist message of score-keeping and domestic resentment has taken hold that it’s viewed as misogynistic even to talk about these decisions in the language of trade-offs. Instead, we’re told Americans need free child care, generous paid leave, more flexible work arrangements, and other enticements to push more women into the workforce.
This ignores the fact that it’s not just men who benefit from the existing system. The spouses and children of men who work these long hours benefit from this choice both financially and in terms of the kinds of lives they might actually want to lead. And by the way, the flexible arrangements everyone claims to want aren’t actually feasible unless a critical mass of employees in high-stakes jobs proves willing to pull those all-nighters to prepare for a big case or travel on a moment’s notice to close a deal. Their efforts make many businesses profitable (and allow other employees to make flexible arrangements). Why shouldn’t the market reward them with higher earnings?
The family profiled in the Times is a success story for feminism. Both partners are well educated and able to earn high incomes, and they have the luxury of choosing to forgo some income for flexibility. What’s more, they have children who will benefit from the attention and responsive parenting of a primary caregiver at home. It’s a symbiotic relationship, not an antagonistic one.
And therein lies the trouble for feminism, which has always struggled with this contradiction. It claims to speak for the needs of all women but can’t reckon with the fact that all women don’t choose the path feminism has mapped out for them.