It’s almost become a cliché to note that women are still under-earning compared to men in the workforce. But maybe this reality shouldn’t keep surprising us. The recent headlines miss an important part of the work-life balance story: plenty of working mothers are earning less than men because they want the sort of jobs and working arrangements which indeed pay less.
According to a recent Pew poll, 67% of all mothers would ideally forego full-time work in favor of working part-time (47%) or not at all (20%). By contrast, only 25% of fathers would choose part-time work (15%) or not to work (10%). Among all women who describe themselves as “financially comfortable,” only 31% would ideally work full-time and another 34% wouldn’t work at all. And among married mothers, only 23 percent would ideally like to work full-time. These are large percentages of different types of women who would choose family or personal priorities over full-time employment.
Current labor statistics bear out these fantasies: women are twice as likely as men to work part-time even though they are also more likely to be college-educated and thus more marketable.
We spill a lot of ink trying to account for this seeming failure: corporate America doesn’t do enough for families (undoubtedly true). Government doesn’t do enough for families. (Ditto.) But there’s a certain condescension in these explanations, as if we can’t quite believe a woman knows her own mind. Even in countries like the Netherlands, with a tightly woven safety net and a high degree of gender equality, the majority of mothers still opt for more time at home with their families. And why not? Maybe it’s time to stop searching for societal ills or individual pathologies to explain this fact.
The costs of being a part-time worker can be high: lower pay and a sense of diminished value or exclusion, risk of lay-offs, as well as missed opportunities for promotions and praise. But these negatives may in fact be exaggerated or at the least offset by the equivalent downsides to full-time employment. The Pew poll found no difference at all on job satisfaction between full and part-time workers.
The benefits of part-time work are substantial. Parents can be wage earners and role models without, literally, losing sleep. They can preserve most of their professional identity and work skills but still provide support to a wider group of dependents than would be possible with a full-time schedule, and without going insane in the process.
Every family decision doesn’t have to be contested: who’s cooking, who’s “on duty” tonight, who gets to take the business trip and who is left behind to pick up the kids. These complexities don’t disappear with part-time work, of course, but they’re just a whole lot easier to navigate. And you can forego some of the expenses that full-time workers need to offset their fatigue and time crunch: take-out dinners and house cleaning, for example, or buying a second car in lieu of public transportation.
It’s true that the trend toward part-time, benefit-free employment can be financially ruinous to individual workers. One fifth of the country’s jobs are part-time, and many are low-skilled, dead end positions. But it’s easy to overlook how unrewarding full-time employment can be for many people, too – especially when the researchers and reporters and pundits who write about workforce trends tend to have fascinating, flexible jobs with decent pay.
We should stop limiting what women and men value by insisting that everyone has the same work aspirations. Some of us don’t want to spend the most productive and precious years of our lives trapped at the water cooler with our ‘work spouses,’ and we’re willing to pay the price.