Unintended Consequences
When Liberal Goals Collide

Generous family leave policies advocated by university feminists seem to have backfired, giving a boost to male faculty members while setting women further behind. The New York Times reports:

The underrepresentation of women among the senior ranks of scholars has led dozens of universities to adopt family-friendly employment policies. But a recent study of economists in the United States finds that some of these gender-neutral policies have had an unintended consequence: They have advanced the careers of male economists, often at women’s expense.

Similar patterns probably hold in other disciplines, too.

The central problem is that employment policies that are gender-neutral on paper may not be gender-neutral in effect. After all, most women receive parental benefits only after bearing the burden of pregnancy, childbirth, nursing, and often, a larger share of parenting responsibilities. Yet fathers usually receive the same benefits without bearing anything close to the same burden.

The study points to an uncomfortable tension between two important goals of the liberal feminist political program: paid leave and equal pay. So long as women shoulder, on average, a disproportionate share of child-rearing responsibilities within families (a cultural predisposition that no government policy is likely to be able to break entirely), it’s possible that parental leave policies will give men more room to advance their careers. Indeed, a 2013 Pew study found a significant (positive) correlation between the length parental leave policies and the size of the gender pay gap.

This is a difficult problem to crack. Giving only mothers time off, and not fathers—as some universities are apparently trying after the failure of the gender neutral policy—seems likely to eventually give rise to progressive objections that it is endorsing traditional gender roles, or discriminating against gay couples (to say nothing of transgender people). But even setting aside those dilemmas, a world where mothers get time off but fathers don’t is also likely to increase the pay disparity in the long run as well. While foregoing care for their children, fathers would enjoy several months of career development that their spouses would not.

None of this means that we shouldn’t keep pursuing a world where men and women can command the same salaries, or where more parents have the flexibility to time off work to raise their young children. But it does mean that we should be cognizant of the limits, in the short run, of government policy in achieving both goals simultaneously.

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