The Gender Pay Gap Isn't Caused by Sexism. It's the Result of Women's Choices | Opinion

Last week, U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh traveled to the annual gathering of elites in Davos, Switzerland, to call for American businesses to add women to their leadership teams in order to close the gender pay gap.

Get more girlbosses into the C-suite, the thinking goes, and they'll ensure women's work is recognized and rewarded. But reality is much more complicated.

American women today earn, on average, 83 cents for every dollar a man makes. The gender pay gap shrank by about a percentage point a year during the 1980s. But progress stalled in the 1990s, and the gap declined by just two percentage points over the next two decades. Why is that?

It can't be for lack of women mentors or role models. Women's participation in the labor force has steadily increased from the 1980s onwards, hitting a peak of 60 percent in 2000. Women outnumber men at U.S. colleges and account for more than half of the college-educated workforce. According to the Women Business Collaborative, the number of female CEOs is at an all-time high.

New research by economists Peter Q. Blair and Benjamin Posmanick sheds light on this puzzle. What they find suggests that the gender wage gap is less the result of discrimination than women's preferences about balancing work and family.

Blair and Posmanick show that women's gains slowed after President Bill Clinton signed the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, which guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave. Although FMLA is gender-neutral, women are more likely to file a claim and take longer leaves of absence.

That shouldn't come as a surprise; pregnancy and giving birth are not gender-neutral events. Still, Blair and Posmanick wanted to rule out confounding factors that might have influenced men and women's labor participation. So they took advantage of the timing differences among states in enacting parental leave policies. The data showed a clear trend: The advance toward gender wage parity slowed once a state enacted family leave.

Blair and Posmanick conclude that the implementation of family leave policies explains 94 percent of the stagnation in gender wage parity. Without FMLA and related state policies, the wage gap between white women and white men could have been eliminated in 2017.

So family leave policies may be popular, and they may help some women stay in the workforce over the long term. But they also appear to keep the gender pay gap in place.

the gender pay gap is not sexist

These findings build on previous research showing that family leave policies are utilized differently by men and women, even in places that are supposedly more egalitarian. Swedish fathers have access to paid paternity leave but take just 30 percent of the time allotted to parents. In Denmark and Finland, mothers take 90 percent of leave.

Some feminists argue that the gender wage gap might be more accurately labeled a motherhood penalty. They acknowledge that childless women have salaries similar to men's. In major cities like New York and Los Angeles, women under age 30 earn 102 percent of what young men earn. The pay gap has narrowed for younger women but widens as women age.

Is this evidence of structural inequality—or the result of women making tradeoffs about what they most value? Survey data show that women tend to value work-life balance more highly than salary. A recent Gallup poll of 13,000 workers found that women rank work-life balance above salary, while men care most about pay.

Even professional women prefer great flexibility. A survey of 3,000 doctors found that nearly two-thirds of female doctors prioritize balance over compensation.

Women with children at home are less likely to prefer full-time work. Nearly 40 percent of mothers prefer part-time work, while 21 percent want to stay home. Only 32 percent of mothers chose full-time work.

Getting more women into leadership roles is a laudable goal. But it won't change the desire of many women to focus their attention at home when their children are young. We should respect their choices, even if it means the gender pay gap persists.

Sally C. Pipes is President, CEO, and Thomas W. Smith Fellow in Health Care Policy at the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book is False Premise, False Promise: The Disastrous Reality of Medicare for All (Encounter 2020). Follow her on Twitter @sallypipes.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.