I’m not the first software developer in my family–both of my parents worked in technology as well. But even they weren’t the first. My mother, who programmed back in the days of punch cards and vacuum tubes, followed in the footsteps of my great aunt. Unlike today, the wage gap was actually real back then. My great aunt was quite literally paid less than her colleagues specifically because she was a woman. For one thing, she was in a brand new field holding the same position without any pertinent differences in experience or hours worked, but still earned substantially lower wages. For another, people were quite open about that rationale because it was the norm at the time.
Even I would agree that this was unfair. But was it also unjust? In other words, was this a matter of pure bigotry or some other form of moral wrongdoing on the part of society? Or was it, instead, simply an unfortunate circumstance borne from generally reasonable actions? Those are two very different indictments. Life is frequently observed to be unfair, and justice does not always compel us to fix such things. In those kinds of situations, we often find that the “solutions” are merely trade-offs—exchanging one form of unfairness for another.
So which was it? Unfair or unjust? Our feminist culture discourages us from reflecting on questions like that—preferring that we reflexively label people misogynists and call it a day. But that is not how we roll here at The 96th Thesis. So to answer the question, we need to actually consider & understand why she was paid less.
I can’t speak to the attitudes of the people involved—whether or not her bosses were women-hating jerks smoking cigars who constantly made off-color jokes in the back rooms of their boy’s clubs. I know what TV and movies would have me believe, but that’s not exactly a reliable source. What I can point out, however, is a big cultural difference that transcends personal attitudes: Women were paid less at the time because it was expected that most of them would eventually go on to have families and either reduce or eliminate their hours working.
Why should that make a difference? Because in the past, equitable pay for careers was more complex than simply comparing an hour of productivity to an hour of wages. More companies considered their employees to be long-term investments. Even as workers carried out their tasks, they were gaining experience and skills that would make them more effective workers for that company in the future. Employees weren’t simply being paid based on what they produced now, but also based on educated guesses about what they would mean to the company in the long run. Because women’s futures with the company were much less certain, they were much riskier investments, and that higher risk was reflected in lower wages.
There’s no question that those expectations limited prospects for career-minded women. Swimming against the current is always harder than going along with it. Social expectations like that often create prejudices that take a lot of work to overcome—when they even can be overcome, which is not always the case. In that sense, these practices were by no means fair to women.
At the same time, it wasn’t exactly fair to ask companies to ignore social expectations either—to simply assume that most women would be around in the long-run the same way that most men would be. Even today, men still tend to work longer hours than women for a variety of reasons. Forcing them to ignore that difference wasn’t correcting an injustice.
So if we consider the matter soberly without broadly applying our own prejudices about the personalities involved, the situation was unfair, but not necessarily unjust in a broad sense. There were no doubt plenty of horror stories in which real injustice happened, but also plenty more people who were simply doing their best with the situation they were given.
And, of course, the people of the time chose to try and solve the unfairness. They established laws that required equal pay and forbade various forms discrimination based on sex. Today, achieving equal pay for equal work is probably seen as one of the most benign and positive changes that feminism ever delivered. Even most people who reject feminism in general have little issue with that particular aspect of the movement.
But as with many solutions to unfair situations, they were merely trade-offs accompanied by unintended consequences which have caused a great deal of harm. What’s more, we’ve largely failed to consider those consequences because in a feminist culture, doing so is a great way to draw unfair accusations of misogyny and sexism. But that is exactly how we roll here at The 96th Thesis, so let’s take a look anyway.
What is the primary unintended consequence of reducing employers’ ability to weigh the risk of hiring a worker by making sex-based wage discrimination illegal? It’s a commensurate reduction in their investment in that worker. Ignoring sex in hiring decisions reduces the future-orientation of said decisions. The result is that companies are more and more likely to treat their employees as replaceable parts rather than investments. Today, so many years later, we’ve reached the point where workers are usually referred to as “human resources.” They’re selected by whether their current skills and qualifications fit the need of the moment, and at many companies, little thought given to who they are or where they came from because they’re probably just going to be replaced in a few years anyway. We can argue over whether that trade-off is worth it, but honesty requires us to recognize it as a trade-off.
There’s also the matter of wage depression to consider. The fundamental basis of economics is the law of supply and demand. When the supply of goods and services grows relative to their demand, the price drops. When demand for goods and services grows relative to their supply, the price rises. Well, labor is a service—it’s something we pay for—and is just as subject to that law as anything else. When women entered the workforce en masse, they substantially increased the supply of labor. Roughly speaking, women’s participation in the workforce went from 1/3 to 2/3, which, because they’re half the population, means a roughly 25% increase in the supply of labor. However, they made little change to the demand for labor because 100% percent of women were already consumers.
Because of this, the price of labor—wages—were substantially depressed. Whereas single-income households were normal in the past, today, many families today struggle to get by without two incomes. So while it is much easier for a woman to pursue a high-earning career today than it was 60 years ago, it is also much harder for a woman to be a stay-at-home mom or homemaker. Once again, you could argue whether that trade-off is worth it, but it is undeniably a trade-off that elevates career-minded women at the unfair expense of women who aspire to motherhood—a higher calling than career for most people.
And the trade-offs don’t stop there. Broadly speaking, women’s investment in the work force results in lower investment in the family—fewer children who spend less time with mom. This lack of investment has lead us to a birth rate well below replacement levels and a dying civilization as its fruit. But there’s a more personal trade-off as well. My great aunt never had children of her own; she devoted herself to career instead. In contrast, my mom quit her career as a programmer to have kids—a choice I will literally be eternally grateful for because without it, I would not even exist. My own kids will be eternally grateful to her as well, as will theirs, and so-on down the line. How many more software engineers would have been in my family if more of those genes had been passed on? How many more people would be eternally grateful to their mothers and grandmothers if they had chosen to become mothers in the first place?
So not only was equal pay a trade-off rather than an advancement, I cannot help but conclude that it was by no means worth the cost. The effect of legally forcing this change wasn’t to correct unjust practices by employers, but rather to force a change in expectations for women by elevating career at the expense of family. To our sorrow, it seems that civilization depends much more on the latter than on the former.
There’s no question that feminism has been a debacle. It is the bloodiest movement from a century filled with bloody movements. Nonetheless, many conservatives try to wash that blood off its hands for the sake of its benefits without ever truly counting the costs. Not only do these benefits fail to justify their cost in lives and broken homes that accompanied them, even some of the most beloved cannot justify their own direct costs.