On Work and False Choices – An Essay by Sandra Tzvetkova

The politics of “choice”

The word “choice”, considered in a political context, summons thoughts of the ongoing struggle women face in securing their right to make choices about their own bodies. Lingering not far off however, is a very different political use of the word. Choice – or personal decision-making – has recently come to the fore as the magic wand used to wipe away any of the context surrounding individual outcomes. You’re extremely rich? That’s your choice. You’re extremely poor? That’s your choice. You don’t have healthcare coverage? That’s your choice. Concerning the last example, you will have doubtlessly heard the word “choice” time and again rolling off the tongues of republican lawmakers in support of the (now defunct) American Health Care Act, which, had it passed, would have stripped away income-based tax credits and replaced them with significantly slimmed-down, age-based assistance. By most analyses, it would have increased the cost of healthcare for those who are sick and poor, to the point where in many cases healthcare for this cohort would simply be unaffordable.

When asked how low-income Americans would then be able to get coverage, congressman Jason Chaffetz said, “You know what, Americans have choices. So maybe, rather than getting that new iPhone that they just love – and they want to go spend hundreds of dollars on – maybe they invest it in their own healthcare. They’ve gotta make those decisions themselves.” These comments quickly went viral, with stacks of iPhones springing up on Twitter to depict the costs of routine healthcare services. Chaffetz’s slip is useful in its revealing nature. Under the guise of “choice” – which signals the well-worn American dictum of freedom and liberty – lurks the exact opposite: no choice. And not only that, but it comes with a testy moral judgment. You’ve chosen to be poor, and now you’re choosing an iPhone over your own health? Shame on you.

Are women choosing lower wages?

Because often times the luxury of choice exists only for those who can afford it, it is worth examining what choice means in the context of work. One good place to start is the gender wage gap, a statistic that routinely faces criticism precisely under the auspices of choice. Christina Hoff Sommers of the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute is the self-proclaimed “factual feminist” and has a video, the latest in a string of many on the topic, titled “There In No Gender Wage Gap”. She kicks off with what seems to be the #1 rebuttal to the existence of a gender pay gap: If women make 77 cents for every dollar a man is paid, then why don’t companies cut their costs by hiring only women? This question, of course, is meant to lead to a discussion of how you can’t just split the work force into two: men and women, and compare their average incomes. The heart of the argument is that the wage gap “has nothing to do with paying women less, let alone with sexism; it has to do with differences in individual career choices that men and women make.” Men overwhelmingly choose the top-paying majors, then careers, while women choose the lowest paying ones. The pesky – but smaller – difference that does continue to exist within comparable careers is discarded by Sommers as dependent on far too many variables to discern – though she does toss up a few suggestions, such as: “men are more willing and able to work long hours without notice.”

Also within the YouTube genre of attempting-to-arrange-as-many-facts-as-possible-into-convincing-five-minute-arguments is the vlogbrothers’ (one of whom is John Green, author of The Fault In Their Stars) “Is the Gender Pay Gap Real?” video. This one is much more earnest, in my opinion. Instead of punctuating sardonic statements with snickering (as Sommers does, in what comes off as some sort of tic), Green looks sleepless, like he’s spent all night desperately trying to find an absolute truth about gender wage disparities and in the process has flown too close to the black hole that social science data can be. Nonetheless, he sweeps together a set of decent arguments (with sources listed underneath the video). There is a pay gap across all education and experience levels and in almost all professions – one that is worse for women of color. Even in professions that are “women-dominated”, men earn more and men sit atop of the hierarchy. A lot of this is explained as the unpaid labor that society hoists upon women. On average, women’s pay decreases relative to men’s once kids get thrown into the mix. They may not want to, but women still take on more household work and childcare, even as the percentage of women participating in the workforce rises to meet men’s. This flies in the face of Sommers’ argument that men are simply more willing, and for some reason – I wonder why? – able, to work long hours without notice.

But what about the other big choice…the one in which women are disproportionately picking the low-income jobs? In honor of the smirking #NationalOffendACollegeStudentDay, Sommers the factual feminist, tweets: “Want to close wage gap? Step one: Change your major from feminist dance therapy to electrical engineering.” It’s a shining example of the choice-wand being used to clean away all context surrounding an outcome. In the enviable world Sommers must inhabit in order for her logic to make sense, men and women are born, raised, and go through life as unimpeded equals, and the onus falls on women to simply tweak their choices in the direction of profitability. In this egalitarian world, I expect that kids see their parents splitting up the household work and childcare 50-50, and play with – both at home and among their peers – equal parts nurture-related toys (like dolls) and future-engineer toys (like building sets, or this V8 model combustion engine that I’m sadly having a hard time imagining little girls playing with, even though I completed a High School class on small engine repair where I was indeed the only girl enrolled). In short, it would have to be a world where the stark gender differences we are overwhelmingly socialized [1] to display are not at all a determinant of our individual choices. Perhaps then, the statistics that Sommers brings up in her video – which show that college men take up the highest-paid majors (petroleum engineering, mathematics & computer science, aerospace engineering, chemical engineering) while college women take up the lowest paid majors (counseling & psychology, early childhood education, human services & community organization, social work) – would not read so much like a self-fulfilling prophecy of gender norms. For the time being, however, back in the world we do live in, it isn’t all about choice. It is, in the quickly slipped-in words of vlogbrother Green, “also about the expectations of the social order.”

What choice is it to choose money?

Still, something additional seems to be awry in “choice” as it applies to work. I’m thinking back to the methodology of that symbolic statistic, 77 cents on the dollar. When you split the workforce into two sides: men and women, and compare their earning power, you are leveling not only a criticism at the fact that a man’s hour earns more than a woman’s – but that a teacher’s, for example, earns drastically less than a petroleum engineer’s. Many carefully researched variables exist to validate such labor market phenomena. Education levels, industry demand, company profit, prestige… But alongside this well-reasoned paradigm sit some uncomfortable externalities. A teacher is beneficial – indeed indispensible – to society; a petroleum engineer is, well, very much the opposite, given man-made climate change. Putting aside the market’s inability to factor in the significance of this, could such wage discrepancies be linked simply to the fact that certain careers – such as social care and teaching – are socially assigned to women? If they were instead dominated by men, could it be that they might require more credentials, command more prestige, and suddenly appear to be issuing all the right signals for a higher value in the job market?

In thinking about this, my niece comes to mind. She’s a self-proclaimed hater of all things “girly” but long-time lover of babies (by long time, I mean approximately 5 out of her 9 years). She owns a menagerie of baby dolls and regularly (if jokingly) tries to persuade me to have a child so that I can gift it to her. Whatever has inclined her to have this interest, let’s imagine she maintains it while also doing well in other subjects, such as math, as she already does. When the time comes to specialize, what will she choose? While I hope she doesn’t position herself toward petroleum engineering, I also understand one big factor that might deter her from choosing a field that matches her interest in infants, such as childcare or teaching. Pay. It’s no shocking revelation, but it is saddening. What kind of choice is it to nurture a diverse set of skills and education, only to then divorce them from your interests and/or ethics in order to increase your earning potential? One might say it’s a pragmatic one, when earnings are increasingly tied to other “choices”, including those concerning your healthcare and retirement options. On a personal level, this can be painfully limiting; on an aggregate level, it not only misaligns talents and passions but also creates serious, sometimes irreversible problems (see for instance the entire section called ‘Teacher Shortages’ in the Guardian, or the financial crisis, or climate change).

But just as it is grossly misleading to say that our lives and occupations are entirely determined by our individual choices, it would be false to offer up any quick fixes to the problem. A good starting point, in my opinion, would be to understand that the norms and systems that many of us take as preordained are in fact constructs, and can be reconstructed before they complete their collision course. The time is ripe for radical, collective brainstorming.

[1] For those rushing to wave the rhesus monkey toy study as evidence of biologically determined gender preferences, please read this detailed debunking: http://mixingmemory.blogspot.de/2006/04/monkeys-playing-with-boys-and-girls.html and remember to always take research that reaches sweeping conclusions from small trials with an enormous grain of salt.


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