What stops women from becoming CEOs, politicians,
and surgeons at the same rate that men do? Some reasons include overt discrimination,
subtle cultural factors, and discouragement of girls from studying math and science. Those
factors absolutely need to be addressed, but they�re not the whole story. An important
explanation for this disparity that doesn�t get as much attention is the differences between
choices men and women make about their educations, careers, and family life.
To give an example, a recent study attempted to answer why there are so few female politicians
in the US by asking successful women why they wouldn�t run for public office. While the
study found some important institutional barriers were partly to blame, it also found that women�s
preferences played a huge role in the decision to run for office. The women cited the potentially
devastating loss of privacy, the pressure of constant fundraising, the threat of compromising
one�s principles, and the long hours away from their families. The study found that
women, on average, are less willing to make the sacrifices necessary for grueling political
careers. And the women who do enter politics often do so later in life when their children
are older and the toll on family is not as great.
These women are making the choices on how to balance work, family, and public service
that are right for them. It�s hard to fault them for that even if we�d like to see more
women in politics. And, as an aside, it turns out most men don�t want to run for office
either citing precisely those same concerns. One way to increase female workforce participation
is to have men perform a larger share of household and child rearing duties. Stay-at-home dads
are becoming more common and it�s been shown that even a modest increase in a man�s contribution
to child care and housework duties actually helps women balance their work and family
obligations. This is a great development, but as I�ve
discussed elsewhere it�s hard to encourage these kinds of cultural changes through policy.
Top down rules like mandatory paternity leave can actually backfire. In the end, decisions
about how to parcel out household duties can only realistically be made at the individual
and family level where people can take their particular desires, needs, and abilities into
account. It�s not as simple as saying men should
do more at home because such changes require cultural and individual shifts that can�t
be mandated from above. Additionally, given the choice there are many women who would
still choose to spend more time at home. The desire to spend time with their kids may trump
career ambitions, and for the women who feel this way having a partner stay at home instead
wouldn�t make them any happier or more fulfilled. By questioning their preferences here, we
actually undermine women as rational agents. One way to address this is for businesses
to give employees more flexibility in the hours they work and the locations they work
from. This would allow people to more effectively balance their home lives and their careers.
So to attract talented candidates, industries may want to rethink grueling work hours, or
conditions that prevent people of both sexes from maintaining a work/life balance – like
Google, for example, has done. But such proposals are limited by the realities of some professions.
Surgeons cant work from home, and politicians must spend time with their constituents and
their colleagues. And like other kinds of change, these policies cant be mandated without
causing unintended consequences. Ultimately, you cant make every career compatible with
a robust family life. Its not just women who cant have it all in that respect. No one can.
We all face difficult choices in life. While we should fight prejudice wherever it persists
and encourage women to pursue male dominated majors, jobs, and leadership positons, there
will still be many women and men who will choose differently. And thats okay. Some people
are comfortable working longer hours in exchange for higher pay. Others prefer careers with
more flexibility instead. Men and women should be empowered to choose lives that meet their
own standard of flourishing, not the standards chosen by others.
Supporting human freedom means supporting the freedom of diverse individuals to choose
the lives they believe to be the most fulfilling, while eliminating official barriers wherever
we can. In case you missed it, watch my other video
to learn why mandates wont fix the problem of gender inequality.