Women, Work and Wages

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is said that women have more good sense than men, that they have
more heart and more imagination, more wisdom and virtue. And yet,
statisticians inform us that they are earning much lower incomes
than men. American women may earn only sixty to seventy cents for
every dollar earned by men.

Some social critics explain the income differential in terms of
injustice and exploitation. They are ever eager to lay blame on
someone, on corporations and employers, chauvinistic man, or even
the capitalistic system. They see exploitation and conflict in most
social relations and, therefore, favor more laws and regulations.
Economists, on the other hand, explain the differential in terms
of personal productivity. They deny the possibility of exploitation
wherever there is freedom of choice and unhampered competition.
There can be no conflict, they contend, as long as government does
not restrict competition through licenses and franchises and does
not pass laws that benefit some people at the expense of others.

The messengers of conflict rely on laws and regulations that prescribe
and enforce social relations. They can be found in the courts of
law filing their complaints and charges, and in the halls of Congress
clamoring for more laws and stricter enforcement. In contrast, the
believers in harmony and freedom shudder at such appeals to coercion
and force. They oppose any and all political intervention in social
relations, favor open and honest competition, and advocate voluntary
cooperation among all members of society, regardless of differences
in race, color, creed, or gender.

Cooperation is most advantageous among people with unequal productivities.
Male physique usually embodies more physical strength than women
can muster. It permits men to offer more physical labor than women
can offer, and causes income differentials wherever physical labor
is required. Throughout the ages this difference assigned heavy
outdoor tasks to men and lighter housework to women, giving rise
to a “natural” division of labor.

There are few women who devote their whole lives to income production,
but many who dedicate their lives to their families. Rightly or
wrongly, many employers are living in constant fear of losing their
female workers to home and family. As one may put it: “There
are many jobs we may teach a woman; but it does not seem worth the
effort and expense to teach her because the brighter she is, the
more likely she is to go off and get married, just when she is beginning
to be of some use.” Or, she may leave because she is pregnant,
or her husband is transferred. Or she may refuse to be transferred
for reasons of family. In fact, she may not even want to shop around
in the labor market in order to sell her labor at the highest price.
Family considerations may be more important to her. Therefore, she
must expect to earn less than an equally capable male worker.

Most women merely spend a few years of their lives in economic pursuits.
The common age at marriage being 21 to 25, they may spend a few
years before they are married and again later when the children
have left the nest. The amount of work a wife may supply to the
market may depend not only on her wage rate but also on the total
income of the family. Observers and researchers have found that
female market labor responds negatively to husbands’ incomes;
the more husbands earn, the less wives are likely to work. But there
is a positive response of a woman’s ability to earn income
to her inclination to work; the more she can earn the more she is
likely to work.

In recent decades women throughout the capitalistic world have flocked
from home to office or factory. In the United States, more than
forty percent of married women now are estimated to be earning extra
incomes. This shift from home to market must be explained not only
by the phenomenal reduction in physical exertion as a result of
modern technology and application of capital, but also by the growing
opportunities of office work. As American industry provided an ever
increasing variety of goods at lower prices, it became more advantageous
to buy them in a store than to make them at home. In other words,
an hour’s work in the office became more productive in providing
goods for the home than an hour’s work at home, which persuaded
millions of married women to seek market employment. But even then
they may want to limit their labor to times and places that allow
for family chores. The office hours should not conflict with family
hours, the place of work should not be too far from home, and above
all, the office demands should not be overly exhausting, depriving
her of the strength needed at home.

It is in the interest of all members of society that woman should
develop her ego and join man as equal, freeborn companion and partner.
She should develop her personality in accordance with her inclinations,
desires and economic circumstances. But the basic differences in
sexual character and physique cannot be outlawed any more than other
inequalities of the human race. She cannot escape the burden of
motherhood, of childbearing and child-rearing that consume her energies
and tend to remove her from the labor market. Pregnancy and the
nursing of children take many years of her life and deprive her
of the opportunity to be active professionally. While man may be
pursuing ambitious goals, woman is a child-bearer and nurse, carrying
the burden of human reproduction. In order to compete with man and
develop her abilities in economic life she may have to renounce
her womanly functions and deny herself the greatest joy, the joy
of motherhood. A few extraordinarily gifted women manage to achieve
both, perform great deeds in spite of motherhood.

Affirmative-action judges are blind to the obvious. They actually
find employers guilty for considering sexual limitations and situations.
Oblivious to human nature, they issue court orders that seek to
suppress it. They are actually hurting the very individuals they
seek to benefit. By raising the cost of female labor they are reducing
its demand which, in simple economic language, is tantamount to
creating unemployment. The “marginal” employees, whose
productivity was barely covering their employment costs before the
judge’s order, are rendered “submarginal” by the
order, that is, they are made to inflict losses on their employers
and thus, for purposes of employment, are made unproductive. In
short, they are rendered unemployable. A Supreme Court decision
that interprets the law in such an “affirmative” fashion
may condemn many thousands of American women to long years of unemployment.

cannot rest for long on a judge’s order and the power of the
police to enforce it. It must build on the solid foundation of freedom
and morality, which are the principal elements of social peace and
the guarantors of its prosperity.

19, 2005

Hans F. Sennholz [send him mail]
was professor and chairman of the department of economics at Grove
City College. See his website.

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