The New York Times appeared rather stunned recently to learn that men and women are different, and that these differences often manifest themselves in different career choices. It turns out that, given “a lack of family-friendly policies” in the workplace, millennial men and women both are likely to turn towards “traditional roles,” with men becoming the primary breadwinners and women the primary caregivers.
“Some researchers,” writes Claire Cain Miller, “think that’s because workplace policies have not caught up to changing expectations at home.”
Maybe that’s true. After all, when presented with the option of “supportive” workplace policies, men and women both opted for an “egalitarian relationship,” with both choosing a family setup that more equitably distributed work and caregiving responsibilities. The implication is that millennials’ egalitarian gender-equity dreams could be achieved if only our labor policies allowed.
‘Egaltarian’ Family Leave Policies Are Discriminatory
This could be the case. But then again, Miller might have referred to her own reporting on the matter from a few months ago. She found that, in Spain, men and women take advantage of real-life “egalitarian” policies at different rates—and the consequences of such policies are predictably lopsided:
Spain passed a law in 1999 giving workers with children younger than 7 the right to ask for reduced hours without fear of being laid off. Those who took advantage of it were nearly all women.
Over the next decade, companies were 6 percent less likely to hire women of childbearing age compared with men, 37 percent less likely to promote them and 45 percent more likely to dismiss them, according to a study by Daniel Fernández-Kranz, an economist at IE Business School in Madrid, and Núria Rodríguez-Planas, an economist at City University of New York, Queens College. The probability of women of childbearing age not being employed climbed 20 percent. Another result: Women were more likely to be in less stable, short-term contract jobs, which are not required to provide such benefits.
‘One of the unintended consequences of the law has been to push women into the lower segment of the labor market with bad-quality, unprotected jobs where their rights cannot be enforced,’ Mr. Fernández-Kranz said.
There are a few instructive lessons here. Most importantly we see that, even given the real-world implementation of “egalitarian” labor policies, men and women still behave differently. In Spain, women overwhelmingly chose to scale back their hours given the presence of young children. Secondly, employers responded to this new arrangement starkly, by hiring women less, promoting them less, firing them more often, and placing them in less-important jobs, ones that did not permit family leave.
This is actually fairly common in countries that have generous family-leave policies, as Miller acknowledges: even where the policies are gender-neutral, women tend to opt for the “mommy track” more frequently than men, often switching to part-time work while more men work full time.
Vive La Différence
What this means is simple: men and women are different, and tend to value different professional and domestic arrangements. In practice, and given the opportunity, men will usually work outside the home more and women will usually work outside the home less. If and when labor practices in the United States catch up with millennial “egalitarian relationships,” the results will almost certainly be along these lines. There’s nothing wrong with this.
There is something wrong, however, with the government’s stepping in and mandating certain family-leave benefits. For one thing, it’s none of the government’s business what an employer and an employee decide regarding family leave. For another, when the law mandates that businesses provide family leave, it creates disincentives for companies to hire or advance women, since they will be the ones who overwhelmingly take advantage of such policies.
Absent such mandates, employers would be less likely to look upon hiring women as an additional cost, and more likely to value the professional input of men and women equally instead of consigning the latter to low-paying jobs with no benefits.
There’s nothing bad about the diverse professional desires of men and women, in other words—but it obviously becomes a problem when the government makes these desires a burden on employment.