Ann Romney flap highlights two clichés about women

The Ann Romney-Hillary Rosen flap over working moms points to two clichés about women that are worth exploring in the presidential campaign. One is that most moms have no choice but to work full time. The other is the pay gap between women and men. Both are not what they seem.

Jessica Hill/AP
Would-be first lady Ann Romney speaks at the Connecticut GOP Prescott Bush Awards dinner in Stamford, Conn., on April 23. She went into detail about her life as a mother, a counter to comments made by Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen. Op-ed contributor Amy E. Black writes that the Romney-Rosen flap over working moms is partially fake, 'but issues concerning women, work, and family are far from settled.'

The latest battle in the ongoing war over the women’s vote occurred Monday evening as Ann Romney spoke extensively about her choice to be a stay-at-home mom and the hard work it involved. She was countering Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen, who described the would-be first lady as out of touch with women voters because she “has actually never worked a day in her life.” This, according to Ms. Rosen, disqualifies her from giving advice on women’s economic issues.

As Rosen herself noted, the latest fight is partially fake – no one disputes that raising children is incredibly hard work, and everyone recognizes that a range of factors weigh in a parent’s decision about whether and how much to work for pay.

But issues concerning women, work, and family are far from settled. Consider the summary results of a recent Pew Research Center report:

“The American public is sharply divided in its judgments about the sweeping changes in the structure of the American family that have unfolded over the past half century,” – changes such as more mothers of young children working outside the home. “About a third generally accepts the changes; a third is tolerant but skeptical; and a third considers them bad for society,” the report says.

Simplistic typecasting from both sides of the aisle frustrates the search for meaningful solutions. Let’s reexamine two of the common clichés that distort the public debate over women in the workforce.

Cliché No. 1: A vast majority of mothers have no choice but to work full time.

Of course many American women have little choice but to seek full-time employment. Single mothers, for example, have few viable alternatives. And 3 of 5 mothers who work full time would prefer a part-time job, according to a 2009 Pew Research Center survey.

But many parents do have choices, albeit complicated ones. Foregoing a paycheck or moving from full to part time is an agonizing choice involving many variables such as the high cost of childcare. But it is a decision that millions of Americans have made. For some parents it is a luxury, for some it is a sacrifice, and for others it ironically may even be a necessity.

Low-wage workers, for instance, may have little choice but to stay at home with young children. With the average cost of childcare hovering around $7,000 a year per child, such expenses quickly eat away the income that low earners might otherwise bring home.

Perhaps that explains, in part, why more than twice as many women living below the poverty line stay at home with their children than do not.

Employment numbers alone can’t explain the reasons behind these complicated choices, but the available data do reveal unexpected patterns that challenge simplistic assumptions. According to 2007 Census data, a parent stayed home full time in 34 percent of married couple households with children under 18. One in 4 mothers with children works part time.

So “no choice” is a tricky phrase that can apply to both working moms and those staying at home.

Cliché No. 2: Women make 77 cents for every dollar men earn.

How often have you heard politicians and pundits bemoan the persistence of the wage gap? According to the 2010 Census, the median annual earnings of women working full time were 77 percent of men’s earnings, but that one data point alone tells little. “77 cents” makes a great button or bumper sticker, but it distorts the underlying truth.

Gendered differences are important, and discrimination is surely part of the story. But when number crunchers control for measurable distinctions like education and number of hours worked, the real disparities in men’s and women’s pay shrink, leaving an adjusted wage gap of about 5 to 7 percent, not 23 percent.

Research confirms what most people recognize intuitively – the gender gap in wages is largely, but not entirely, a result of individual decisions that women and men make about education, career, family, and individual jobs.

As a 2007 Department of Labor report summarized, “the differences in raw wages may be almost entirely the result of individual choices made by both male and female workers.”

Many women choose less-demanding (and hence lower-paying) jobs and career tracks to give them more flexibility. Perhaps that is one reason that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women in full-time jobs work significantly fewer hours than men. And while more women than men now attend college, in the workforce, they’re less educated.

In the battle for equal pay for equal work, women have come a long way, baby, even if they haven’t quite arrived. But calling attention to such good news doesn’t fill interest group coffers and doesn’t get voters to the polls.

Simplistic rhetoric, and the straw men it can create, distracts us from addressing the complex and vexing issues at stake – issues such as child care, paid leave, and job flexibility for parents. American women and men know that the reality of balancing work and family is far more complicated, far more nuanced, and far more honest than the pundits pretend.

Leaders in both parties need the courage to move beyond the tired (and often inaccurate) clichés. Instead of searching for snappy slogans, let’s reach for real solutions.

Amy E. Black is associate professor of political science and chair of the department of politics and international relations at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill.

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