For Mothers, ‘Your Choice’ Really Is No Choice At All

Being successful at work or having a family is not a choice.

In my many discussions about the need for women’s leadership and empowerment I frequently hear some version of  the “choice argument.” It’s based on the belief that women on their own freely select circumstances leading to less money, less success, less leadership, and less power. Thus, collective action in terms of public policy, or changing attitudes or behavior across society, are totally unnecessary and inappropriate. This is not only absurd, but dangerous.

You can easily recognize the choice argument when you bump up against it. Here are three common examples:

  • “women don’t encounter discrimination—they choose lower-paying jobs”
  • “women could make as much as men—but they choose to quit work after having a baby”
  • “women don’t make it up to the top—they choose to work part-time so they can care for their children.”

After a decade of listening to women, studying the data, and researching the policies (or lack thereof), the choice argument does not match up with what I know. In fact, many women feel they have no choice at all, or only very undesirable alternatives, and nothing resembling their preferred options.

On a larger scale, without more effective public policies that acknowledge the dual roles adults play as both workers and family caregivers, the United States will fall farther behind in the global economy. That’s not good for the country, communities, families, or any of us.

Let’s start at the very beginning. Half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Without control over the number and timing of one’s fertility, exercising control over other aspects of one’s life gets much harder.

In terms of education, women started outpacing men in terms of undergraduate degrees several decades ago. Since 2006, women have earned more degrees than men at every level all the way up to post doctoral. Women have been preparing themselves for full engagement in the labor force, and now comprise nearly half the U.S. workforce. They’ve also increased their numbers in typically male dominated fields like law, medicine, science, and higher education.

“Today, women in their early 30s are just as likely to be doctors or lawyers as they are to be teachers or secretaries,” according to a US News & World Report article published in October 2014. Women seem to be making an ever wider range of choices when it comes to academia. But it doesn’t put them on a sustainable equal footing.

As men and women with professional degrees age and get further away from graduation day, men’s income continues to rise while women’s goes up more slowly, flattens out, declines, or gets interrupted. Arguing that women choose lower-paying or female-dominated job sectors to explain the pay gap won’t work.

“But even within the same fields, women were paid less than men…Women entering finance earned, on average, close to $22,000 less than men, the largest pay differential among companies that drive MBA hiring. Women were offered $12,300 less by tech companies, and $11,500 less by consulting firms than their male peers,” says Bloomberg Business in Women’s Career Choices Don’t Explain the Gender Pay Gap.

I don’t know any woman who chooses to be paid less because she is a woman.  Women aren’t choosing it, yet that’s what they experience.

Mothers’ “choices” get even narrower. It is well established now that mothers earn less than childless women or men with or without children. The “motherhood penalty” is shorthand for the conscious or unconscious belief that women with children are less committed, less capable, and held to higher performance standards. Being a mother further decreases a woman’s income by about 6%, a figure that has remained stable for decades. That’s not a choice women make. A woman could  be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and she’ll still make less than her male counterparts. I simply don’t believe women “choose” that.

The sky high cost of child care in the United States puts mothers especially in an impossible position. Because mothers are often the lower earner, and the socially “preferred” caregiver, the difference between the mother’s income and the cost of child care becomes the equation for most households. With access, quality, and affordability ranging widely in the absence of any kind of meaningful regulation, the child care/maternal employment calculation takes millions of mothers out of the labor force. This makes families economically vulnerable, erodes mothers’ future earning capacity, and deprives the economy and the country of her talent and tax dollars because of our uniquely “all or nothing” approach to work and family in the United States.

Whether we choose to or not, women are culturally assigned most of the family care, and in fact perform most of the unpaid household labor upon which all human activity totally depends. The option for egalitarian relationships, preferred by both millennial men and women, in which both partners are equally engaged in earning income and providing care, is simply not available to most people. In the absence of a nationally guaranteed paid leave program for both mothers and fathers, flexible work schedules, paid sick days, and public investments in child care, the parent tasked with primary responsibility operates at a considerable disadvantage. One parent’s life continues after baby without much change, and the other parent’s life is turned upside down. This arrangement doesn’t serve children well, or their parents, or the national economy.

Being successful at work OR having a family is not a choice. Going to work ill OR losing your job is not a choice. Raising your child OR having a job is not a choice. Responding to gender discrimination, the pay gap, the motherhood penalty, and out of date employment policies with a flippant “well, you decided to have that kid, it was your choice” is no solution to a policy failure that punishes women, weakens family security, slows down our economy, and threatens access to the talent we need to maintain our national security.

From my perspective, mothers have fewer choices, and sometimes no choice at all.  Let’s bury the choice argument, and move ahead making the changes we need to maximize our potential, take the best care possible of the people we love, and keep the economy vibrant, flexible, and growing.

Valerie Young is a public policy analyst for Mom-mentum, a non-profit organization providing leadership, education, and advocacy to support mothers in meeting today’s personal and professional challenges. Formerly an attorney, Valerie now blogs about the effect of family carework on a woman’s economic security and advocates women’s empowerment at Your (Wo)Man in Washington, and covers policy news for Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers.

This originally appeared on Mom-Mentum. Republished here with permission.

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