Minding the Gap
While the U.S. Congress moves towards enacting the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act, which Tristin recently blogged about here, a U.K. think tank has released a report aimed at debunking the notion that discrimination accounts for gender disparities in pay. The Institute for Economic Affairs, whose mission is to find “ways of reducing the government’s role in our lives,” reports that differences in earnings can be accounted for most centrally by the fact that “[m]ales and females make different choices in the labor market, in terms of the trade-off between pay and other job characteristics, choice of education, choice of occupation and attitudes to work.” As stated in the Foreword, “the free choice of men and women who are seeking employment—as well as earlier educational choices and the choices they make regarding their domestic arrangements—are at the heart of differences in pay levels.” This account echoes the argument often deployed by employers facing claims of race discrimination, namely, that minorities simply aren’t interested in higher-paying, more secure jobs.
Why does this argument, which seems so easy to dismiss in the context of race discrimination, strike some as more plausible when it comes to women’s labor market “choices”? Enter Jill Lepore, who recently published an article in The New Yorker about the role of breast pumps in addressing the “Human Milk Gap.” Lepore reports:
One big reason so many women stop breast-feeding is that more than half of mothers of infants under six months old go to work. The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees only twelve weeks of (unpaid) maternity leave and, in marked contrast to established practice in other industrial nations, neither the government nor the typical employer offers much more. To follow a doctor’s orders, a woman who returns to work twelve weeks after childbirth has to find a way to feed her baby her own milk for another nine months. The nation suffers, in short, from a Human Milk Gap.
There are three ways to bridge that gap: longer maternity leaves, on-site infant child care, and pumps. Much effort has been spent implementing option No. 3, the cheap way out.
Lepore asks, “is it the mother, or her milk, that matters more to the baby?” She suggests that pumps allow us to avoid addressing this important social question and its policy implications.
Juxtaposing these perspectives suggests that, in a variety of contexts, it can be useful to reflect on what we mean when we talk about women’s “choices,” and how we fail to recognize the ways in which many women’s choices are constrained.