This house believes that a woman's place is at work—concluding remarks
Concluding remarks for the ten day online debate at The Economist

Francesca Romana Correale

Article Highlights

  • Women do not have a defined place in society--one size does not fit all

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  • A vote against "a woman's place is at work" is a vote for a woman's right to choose

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  • Employment data shows that women earn equal pay for equal work

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This is a debate about a woman's "place" in society. I maintain that women do not have an assigned place. Women are various. One size does not fit all. Linda Basch, by contrast, maintains that women "belong in the workplace". It is in the workplace, she says, that women "develop their full potential as productive and self-reliant human beings". A vote for the motion is a vote for a uniform standard for how women should live their lives; a vote against is a vote for women's right to choose.

Astonishingly, the moderator, Barbara Beck, has attempted to revise the motion in mid-debate. She writes,

"In fact the motion was meant ironically, echoing the old saw that "a woman's place is in the home" but turning it on its head. It was not intended to be taken literally, but to suggest that times had changed and that for most women being part of the workforce has become the norm—and a good thing too."

Had I been asked to oppose the anodyne resolution, "Times have changed and it's a good thing women are working", I would never have done so. Who would? Ms Beck was no doubt taken by surprise when Ms Basch missed the irony and defended the motion as proposed. I was not surprised, because I have spent many years studying the organised women's movement. Women staying home with children is not on its list of accepted practices, to put it mildly.

"...there is little evidence of systematic discrimination against women in the American workplace today."--Christina Hoff Sommers

Ms Basch claims that I ignore the fact that most women today simply do not have the economic option to stay at home. I never ignored this reality, but it is not relevant to the motion on the table. We are not debating whether most women have the opportunity to stay at home—I am fully aware that most women (and men) face serious economic constraints. Instead, we are determining whether women who do chose home over paid employment are making a respectable and worthy decision. Ms Basch suggests they are not. I say they are.

There is more that divides us. Ms Basch says that "countless rigorously controlled studies" have "demonstrated" that women continue to suffer bias. I have no doubt that, even today, women continue to encounter some prejudice, and that even well-meaning employers may harbour "subtle" or "hidden" biases. But it is not enough to uncover hidden bias in a laboratory experiment. What has to be shown is that bias is a significant force holding women back. As I keep saying, when serious researchers look at actual employment data and factor in details not accounted for in laboratory settings, such as the number of hours worked per week, they find that women are earning equal pay for equal work—bias recedes as a significant explanatory factor.

There are many examples of these studies, but I'll limit myself to two. In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences released a congressionally mandated study of gender bias in academic science, performed by the National Science Foundation (NSF). For years, gender equity activists had claimed massive bias against women in fields such as maths, physics and engineering. (And they made their case by citing many of the same sources listed in Ms Basch's endnotes.) But when the NSF tested the claim, it found that women scientists, at critical junctures such as hiring, tenure decisions and promotion, had fared "as well or better than men". Consider the case of pharmacists. Almost half of all pharmacists are female, yet as a group they earn only 85% of what their male counterparts earn. Why should that be? After all, male and female pharmacists are doing the same job with roughly identical educations. There must be hidden bias. Well, according to the 2009 National Pharmacist Workforce Survey, male pharmacists work on average 2.4 hours more per week, have more job experience, and more of them own their own stores. Do Ms Basch, the moderator and the two featured experts find it unfair that male pharmacists who work longer hours and have more experience are paid more? There may be exceptions, but most workplace pay gaps and glass ceilings vanish when accounting for these legitimate factors.

Ms Basch claims that I ignore "basic facts about the lives of women". Here are two facts that are basic and true. First, there is little evidence of systematic discrimination against women in the American workplace today. Second, there is lots of evidence that women and men generally strike different balances between home and work, with women more strongly attracted to homemaking. Ms Basch might not approve, but millions of women choose to stay at home with their children. That choice should not be written off as benighted or anti-social.

Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at AEI

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