As we wrap up Women’s History Month, it’s worthwhile discussing some of the major policy proposals intended to help women enter and stay in the workforce on levels equal to men.
Many of these proposals are meant to address (1) the wage gap between men and women, (2) the lack of mandated maternity leave, and (3) the high cost of child care. All three of these issues can operate together to make it more financially sensible for women to stay at home after they give birth.
But these supposedly woman-friendly policy proposals misunderstand women’s working lives and women’s choices. And some of these policies, while they may help middle-class women, are likely to hurt the most vulnerable women in the workforce — those who work low-skilled, low wage jobs.

1. The Wage Gap

Let’s start with equal pay. There’s been a lot of good libertarian work on the wage gap, so I’ll just link to some of that rather than laying it all out here. Suffice it to say, the actual gap itself is much smaller than the figure of 77 cents for every dollar that is often thrown around in the media.
Moreover, the causes of the actual gap are complicated. Some of it may very well be due to discriminatory policies or unconscious bias on the part of employers. But studies have shown that some of it has to do with women being less likely to ask for raises, as well as what they ask for when they do.
Women frequently choose to focus on other things in their negotiations with employers, including more flex time, the ability to work from home, and better benefits. Finally, the biggest reason for the gap in earnings between men and women has to do with larger decisions about what kinds of fields they enter (women are more likely to enter human services fields, which pay less than STEM fields, where women are more rare) as well as how much they work when they get there. Women are more likely to work part time, particularly when children are young.
Put together, the wage gap seems less the result of deliberate discrimination by employers and more a case of women as competent economic thinkers who are trying to balance work, life, and family. That more women make these tradeoffs than men is significant, but may also be changing as more men choose to stay home and take care of children.
Given that women’s share of higher education has been growing dramatically and that they are poised to take over large areas of law, medicine, and other professional fields, we may well see a similar shift in male negotiating tactics in the future.

2. Mandatory Maternity Leave

Another major policy being floated is mandated maternity leave. The problem with this solution is not, as in the case of the wage gap, that it doesn’t solve a real problem. In fact, lack of maternity leave affects breastfeeding rates, postpartum depression rates, and infant outcomes.
Instead, the problem with mandating maternity leave is that maternity leave itself leads to other kinds of unintended consequences for women. Research from Pew shows that countries with the most generous maternity leave policies also have the largest wage gaps between men and women. Taking 10 months to a year off at a time does not place one in the best position for promotions or raises, after all.
But perhaps most damaging is that mandated maternity leave harms the very women who have the most to lose — unskilled workers. Companies who hire highly trained and skilled women may see generous maternity leave policies as a way to attract highly qualified women who will stick around much longer than their leave, more than making up for their temporary absence.

Mandated maternity leave harms the very women who have the most to lose.”]
Unskilled workers do not have those same benefits to offer. Their work is largely interchangeable, characterized by high turnover, and employers do not compete for such workers the way they compete for skilled laborers. Mandatory maternity leave means, not better options for low-skilled women, but rather an increase in discrimination and bias against women, particularly low-skilled women, in their childbearing years. Employers will simply shift their focus to men and older women, who they won’t have to risk paying while on leave or training replacements.

3. Subsidized Child Care

A final piece of the agenda for working women is lowering child-care costs by providing state-sponsored subsidies to allow both parents to work outside the home. Child care costs have been soaring of late, and most families, particularly those with one partner who earns a lower wage, may find that the most sensible financial plan is for the lower-wage partner to stay home with children. Since the lower-wage earner is still more likely to be female, many women choose to stay home for economic reasons, even when they would rather be working.
The problem with subsidizing child care with government money is that it fails to pay attention to why child care is so expensive in the first place. Research by the economists Diana Weinert Thomas and Devon Gorry found that as much as 20% of child care costs could be linked to regulations that add neither safety nor quality to child care. These regulations included the requirement for child care workers to have high school or college degrees, which is shown to add considerably to costs but does not contribute at all to either safety or quality of care. Yet encouraging more college graduates to choose employment at child care facilities is part of Senator Gillibrand’s agenda for working mothers.
Such a plan would provide tax credits to college graduates who go into child care work. The result would actually increase the cost of care overall, rather than helping families afford child care. Instead of encouraging people with costly undergraduate educations to take jobs as daycare workers, why not take a hard look at the regulations daycares face and eliminate the ones that don’t help anyone except the regulators?

It’s a trap!

This Women’s History Month, let’s avoid the trap of looking at women’s equality as a problem that only politicians can solve. Let’s look instead at women’s issues as the result of a complex series of choices women and men make, choices that are dynamic and where incentives are changing even as I write.
There are, of course, very real barriers to women’s equality out there, but let’s not forget how often these take the form of government policies like higher tax rates on second earners and restrictive occupational licensing laws that prevent women from entering the workforce.
Before we start adding more government policies on top of other problematic government policies, let’s take a hard look at how government restricts women’s choices. Whatever we do, let’s not pass laws and policies that help middle and upper class women out at the expense of the most vulnerable women. To do that is to place the biggest burden of inequality on those who are the least able to shoulder it.