Yesterday, I joined Huffington Post Live in a Google Hangout to discuss how occupational and career choices factor into the male-female wage gap. I saw it as a breakthrough: All of the panelists acknowledged that women have at least some personal responsibility in determining their career achievement and pay.
This is good news for women: We can improve our wage-earning potential by moving into more lucrative, traditionally male-dominated fields and by more aggressively advocating for pay raises or promotions.
Unfortunately, conversations about the wage gap too often start with the underlying premise that the goal should be 100 percent parity in women's and men's wages. We are supposed to want women to comprise 50 percent of every profession and to work exactly the same number of hours as men. After all, this is the only way to close the statistical wage gap.
But should this really the goal? I would suggest that instead of equal outcomes or parity between the genders, the goal should be equal opportunities or real equality. As I mentioned in yesterday's Hangout, opportunities are simply harder to measure than outcomes. Therefore, people often make the mistake of using outcomes as a (bad) proxy variable and presuming that women are relegated to bad set of opportunities.
Comparing outcomes alongside women's preferences gives us a better measure of women's opportunities. Are women doing what they want to be doing?
Here's an example: When we consider that only 21 percent of married mothers prefer full-time work, we shouldn't surprised that fewer women than men end up working long hours (only 14 percent of FT women work more than 41 hours/week, compared to 25 percent of FT men). Women are acting on a preference to work fewer hours. This shouldn't be presented as a failure, but as evidence that they are trying to do what makes them happy.
It's limited resources, not gender, that typically holds us back from getting what we want (whether it's a corner office in the C-Suite, an additional shift at Wendy's, or an extra week of vacation each summer). Interestingly, about equal percentages of working mothers and fathers say they'd prefer to be spending time with their children, but continue working because they need the income.
If we want to help women achieve their ideals, then we should support policies that encourage more diverse employment opportunities and real economic growth, so that more part-time or flex-time positions are available and so that companies can afford to pay workers more.
A world where women (and men) are free to pursue their individual preferences (although this will almost certainly result in a gender pay disparity) is a much better world than one where men and women attempt to live exactly identical lives. Let's celebrate our differences, and our different choices, by advocating not for parity, but for equal opportunities.
Hadley Heath is Senior Policy Analyst at the Independent Women's Forum (www.iwf.org).