The Dark Side of Equal Opportunity

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.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
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2 Responses to The Dark Side of Equal Opportunity

  1. Wilson says:

    There is a much wider question here. It is a slippery slope that cuts many ways. Should women be educated at all? Like some people argue women having the right to vote led to this disaster. Like women are more compassionate and trusting in general and not make cold-hard math like judgments like men do. Some even argue, even if that is the case, it is better to trust women with that power. No conservative today argues women voting rights be removed since even most conservative women fight within the “feminist” framework and that just makes the framework much stronger and society more malleable to rapid change. In fact, many conservative women in early 20th century campaigned and tried to stop women from getting the right to vote.

    Catholic Church had once index of all the books it banned, it was there for centuries and it removed the ban in the 1960s I think. You made a reference to supernatural tv series, which pretty much borrow ideas from Christian, Catholic, and pagan worlds. Do you not think this subtly influences people away from belief or dilutes their faith?

    Some of the mainstream ideas pushed and normalized around the world come from this education. Like, say “Vindication of women’s rights” by Mary Wollstonecraft in the 16th century. She was disturbed, had a crazy marriage with couple of affairs, and her daughter was Mary Shelly who was the author of Frankenstein and killed herself. She debated political ideas in her book, and most conservative women despised her for a couple of centuries after her death. She became somewhat of an influential feminist icon in the early 19th century. Even Somali born Ayaan Hirsi Ali, ex-Muslim, classical liberal, neo-conservative considers mrs Wollstonecraft her hero.

    My broader point is that most crazy people, philosophers with stunningly crazy ideas, at times deep philosophical conceptions influence our world and it is almost hard to avoid being influenced.

    Say, for example, the unborn child does not suffer in utilitarian sense but also is not liable to be in hell through some Catholics beg to differ. Not even mentioning ethical complications and considerations of IVF, should an unwed mother bring a child into the world, in abusive relationship or in a bad neighborhood. I honestly cannot answer that question. Suffering even in the 19th and 20th centuries, by war, famine, people fighting ruthlessly over doctrines is much more troubling for me in a utilitarian sense.

    I am raising several issues here and there are conservative women like the Mary Eberstadt who is a Catholic and writes extensively on these issues backed by ton of secular research. But someone like Taylor Swift and Katy Perry have a lot of cultural capital to make a social impact on ongoing issues like Gay Rights, transgender phenomenon and so on. That makes it very hard to stop the wheel from spinning. I will stop here, but I would like to know your ideas on these issues.

    • Matt says:

      A lot of interesting questions here, so I’ll try to be brief on each.

      First, regarding women and education: It’s not so much a question of whether to educate, but rather of how much and for what purpose. Those are the kinds of questions that should be answered by individuals examining both their calling and the costs/benefits of education–partiuclarly higher education. It’s there, unfortunately, that our society is so messed up. We idolize education so much that it becomes an end unto itself–as though it were university degrees that give us value as human beings. Because of that, many people don’t even count the cost, and blithely enter into ridiculous amounts of debt, sin, and ideological indoctrination. I think that when we become more sensible about the place of college, fewer people will pursue degrees in general, women will would pursue them less often than men, and eventually, universities themselves will start becoming somewhat healthier places to be.

      Next, regarding the normalization of crazy ideas: Yes, this has always been the case. It’s the Spirit of the Age at work (in the Biblical sense, not the Hegelian sense.) You can’t help being influenced, but the best way to manage that influence is to make sure you read lots of books written in different time periods. Each age has its own insights and blindspots, and you’re more likely to recognize that when you don’t lock yourself into the thoughts of your own age. The more you avoid that error, the easier it is to imagine societies without some of the things we’ve come to believe are permanent fixtures. When you take a longer view of history, feminism is extremely peculiar, and its problems are so atrocious that it’s an utterly unsustainable philosophy. In the long run, it will end up being an aberration rather than the permanent step towards “progress” that we assume it is.

      Finally, regarding the question of whether an unwed mother in a bad situation should bring a child into the world: This actually becomes very easy to answer when we understand our terms correctly. An unwed woman who is pregnant has already brought a child into the world–that ship has sailed. People think of abortion in terms of whether or not to have a child, but it’s really a choice about what to do with the child you already have. When we understand that, knowing the answer is easy even though carrying it into execution is hard: she should love, nourish, and protect that child to her utmost ability. Now, of course, an unwed woman in a bad situation should not be having sex in the first place–both morally and practically speaking–and in that sense, she should not be bringing a child into the world. But once that happens, the question of “whether to have a child” passes away in favor of “how shall I love my child.”

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