Action, Responsibility and Women’s Choices
Ann Levey argues that there is a tension between feminism and liberalism. “Feminism,” she writes, “is committed to bringing about an end to gender hierarchy, including the gendered division of labor. Liberalism is committed to respecting voluntary choice. Yet much of the current gendered division of labor is perpetuated through women’s voluntary choice.”
I argue, first that feminism is not committed to ending the gendered division of labor but rather to bringing it about that men and women in the aggregate have the same options at the same costs. Secondly, I note that while liberalism is committed to “respecting” voluntary choice it is not committed to accommodating voluntary choice in all, or most individual cases, but rather to maximizing “positive freedom” over the population, a goal that may require imposing constraints on the voluntary choices of many individuals. Finally I argue that the voluntary choices which contribute to the gendered division of labor are for the most part informed, rationally considered responses to discriminatory practices and are objectionable only to the extent that they generate feedback effects which, in turn, further restrict the options of women in the home and in the labor market.
There is no tension between feminism and liberalism: all authentic liberals are ipso facto feminists and every feminist in her right mind should be a liberal.
1. Ceteris paribus preferences, equality of opportunity and equality of outcome
Critics charge that, in their efforts to end the gendered division of labor in order to achieve an “equality of outcome” for men and women, feminists show a lack of respect for the voluntary choices of women who prefer to assume traditional roles.  Feminists quite often take the bait and worry that liberalism, insofar as it is committed to respecting individual’s preferences cannot provide a rationale for attempts to dismantle the gendered division of labor which is, as Levey notes, is perpetuated through women’s voluntary choices.
Arguably, given an adequate understanding of preference and choice, this worry is unfounded: critics greatly overestimate the extent to which gendered choices reflect the ceteris paribus preferences of women—and men. Where women’s “gendered choices” are rational, informed, and fully voluntary it does not follow that they ceteris paribus prefer the states of affairs they aim to achieve. All other things being equal, an individual may prefer a state S but after weighing the costs of S’s concomitants or consequences decide that S is not worth it or calculating that the probability of achieving S is low and the opportunity high may decide that the risk of pursuing S is too great. So, even if a rational, informed individual chooses to pursue a course of action intended to bring about an alternative state of affairs, S* it does not follow that she ceteris paribus prefers S* to S.
As rational choosers, operating in circumstances where we make decisions under uncertainty and always have to weigh costs and risks, we cannot always afford to pursue the outcomes we ceteris paribus prefer and often settle for second, third or nth best. Such decisions are, if anything, paradigmatic cases of voluntary action: if we were to stipulate that an act, a, is fully voluntary only if it is intended to bring about the state of affair its agent ceteris paribus prefers we would be setting the bar too high. Consequently, given a reasonable understanding of preference and voluntariness, while the current gendered division of labor may be largely, or entirely, a consequence of women’s fully voluntary gendered choices, it does not follow that it reflects women’s ceteris paribus preferences.
It is however women’s ceteris paribus preferences and the difficulties they face in satisfying them that feminists worry about. Traditionally women have had to work harder, produce more credentials, assume more risk and make greater sacrifices, to get a wide range of desirable jobs (and lives) that men could get with less effort, less cost and less risk. Women are not only worse off then men: they are differently off. Women find it hard to break through glass ceilings in business and the professions and much harder to get blue collar jobs than men do; men find it harder to get relatively desirable secretarial jobs than comparably qualified women and suffer more severe penalties if they take extended parental leave. The enforcement of sex roles thus limits the options of both men and women and, insofar as having the widest possible range of options is a good thing, makes both worse off.
The difference in the costs, risks and likelihood of success in achieving the same goals that men and women face in virtue of gender alone is inequality of opportunity. Liberals, insofar as they aim to minimize the extent to which unchosen characteristics, including race, class, and gender, restrict people’s options in the interests of expanding the scope of individual liberty broadly construed think it is a bad thing. Most feminists also consider it objectionable. It remains to be seen whether feminists, in the interests of getting a better shake for women, should in addition aim at equality of outcome and should, in particular, be concerned about the gendered division of labor, even where it does not signal or perpetuate inequality of opportunity.
I argue that they should not. I shall argue first, that the gendered choices of most women do not reflect their ceteris paribus preferences, secondly, that the price the minority of women who ceteris paribus do prefer traditional roles pay to satisfy their preferences is not exorbitant and thirdly, that the gendered division of labor, although it is both a symptom and cause of inequality of opportunity, is not in and of itself objectionable.
2.1 The gendered choices of most women do not reflect their ceteris paribus preferences
Inequality in outcomes is prima facie evidence of inequality of opportunity. Currently, there is significant sex segregation in the labor force and large male-female wage gaps, which provide some reason to suspect that discriminatory practices are at work. While educated, upper middle class women have made significant progress in management and the professions, jobs for most Americans, who have not completed college, are highly sex segregated and the male-female wage gap for workers who are not college graduates is much greater than it is for graduates. Mechanics, for example, earn on the average $669/week while female clerical workers average $512/week and female service workers earn $366/week.
Now it may be that most working class women have a strong preference for clean office work and an aversion to work that is dirty, mobile or physically taxing--and that they are prepared to pay $157/week ($8167/year) not to be mechanics in order to satisfy that taste. Or it may be that because such jobs do not require high levels of education or and can be done equally well by many people, employers can indulge their “taste for discrimination” without incurring any penalty, so that women are locked into a narrow range of pink collar pink collar occupations which, as a consequence, become overcrowded and that overcrowding in these occupations forces wages down.
It is an empirical question what the explanation for sex segregation and wage gaps is. Arguably, however, it is not sex segregation or wage gaps as such that are objectionable but the way in which they come about. It is reasonable to trade off higher pay for greater job satisfaction, and in fact that is what most of us, as academics in humanities disciplines, have done. We have expensive tastes: we want to spend our time puzzle-solving and arguing, we want to organize our days as we like, work on the projects that tickle our fancy, and avoid boredom: we pay a premium to satisfy these preferences. If women choose to pay an $8,167/year premium for clean office work, or a $15,756/year premium for the pleasures of cashiering, waitressing or other service sector jobs, there is nothing wrong with that either—if that is what they prefer.
Feminists worry about sex segregation and wage gaps precisely because it is unlikely that women prefer these jobs or that they are so adverse to blue collar work that they willingly pay thousands so satisfy their preferences. Assuming that women in pink-collar occupations could if they chose get work in blue collar trades where wages are comparable to auto mechanics’ pay, the choice to do traditional women’s work would cash out as a 23% pay cut for female clerical workers and a 45% pay cut for female service workers. It is unlikely that women are either incapable of doing most blue collar jobs or so averse to doing them that they willingly absorb this big a financial hit. This suggests that either the costs and risks for women who wish to do blue collar jobs are significantly higher for women than they are for their male counterparts or that, because of ongoing discrimination, women are simply unable to get them, and that in any case the choice of most women to enter traditionally female clerical and service occupations rather than traditionally male blue-collar work does not reflect their ceteris paribus.
Nevertheless there are women whose gendered choices do reflect their ceteris paribus preferences. Levey cites the case of a nurse who pays a premium to satisfy her gendered preference:
I could be a doctor. But I choose not to be. If I were a physician, I couldn’t walk into the room of a kid who’s awake at three in the morning and say ‘Hi, how are you?’ I could never be at the bedside when they take their last breath. That’s the privilege of nursing. I know these kids, I care for these kids in a way a physician could never dream of doing. When you realize that, why would you want to be anything but a nurse? (quoted in Picard 2000, 51)
Unfortunately, few women, or men, have this taste and that is why since women have had the option of pursuing a wider range of careers there has been a severe, chronic nursing shortage.
It may be that most nurses have a ceteris paribus preference for caring work—nursing is a skilled, intellectually demanding profession and most women who choose to train as nurses could, if they chose, enter a wide range of other technical and scientific areas. It is not however so clear that the choices of most women who work at traditional women’s jobs are expressions of gendered ceteris paribus preferences. In general, sex segregation and wage gaps are greater in low-skilled, low-paid jobs where applicants have few viable options and employers can indulge their tastes for discrimination than they are in management and the professions.
If this is correct, then both feminists like Levey and their conservative critics are simply mistaken in assuming that the gendered division of labor is largely a consequence of choices that reflect gendered ceteris paribus preferences—adaptive or otherwise.
2.2 The price paid by the minority of women to satisfy their gendered ceteris paribus preferences is not exorbitant
Some women, like Levey’s nurse, ceteris paribus prefer to do traditional women’s work. Levey worries that “social structures are systematically biased against [their] gendered preferences,” that is, that the price of making these choices is too high. It is not however clear that women who choose traditionally female occupations because they have gendered occupational tastes are paying excessively—that, for example, the price nurses pay to be nurses rather than doctors is exorbitant when the (financial and other) costs of medical school, malpractice insurance and the like are factored out. Indeed it is not clear whether, where individuals have other viable options, any price is exorbitant. As philosophers we pay thousands not to be accountants and perhaps tens or hundreds of thousands over our lifetimes for what Levey’s nurse describes as the privilege of pursuing our chosen profession—and like her, we believe it’s worth every cent.
There are just two circumstances where we commonly regard the prices set for goods as exorbitant: cases of exploitation, where buyers have no other viable options, and cases of discrimination where sellers charge different prices for the same goods to different people. The classic case of the first type is the story of Jacob who, when his brother Esau was starving, induced him to trade his patrimony for a bowl of pottage. Cases of the latter sort are familiar: American tourists pay much more for goods in foreign bazaars than locals.
Neither of these conditions obtains in the cases under consideration, in which a minority of relatively privileged women, because of their gendered preferences, choose to do traditional female work. Levey’s nurse is not exploited—she could be a doctor but chooses to pay to pursue her vocation. It is precisely workers whose occupational choices do not reflect their ceteribus paribus preferences and do pink-collar clerical or service work because they have no other viable options, that are being exploited. If anyone is paying through the nose it is not women whose occupational choices reflect their ceteris paribus preferences but those whose choices do not.
Again, the price in wages and prestige Levey’s nurse pays for not being a doctor is not a consequence of discrimination: it comes with the job. The pay scale for men and women in the nursing profession is the same. Now as it happens most nurses are women so it is primarily women who pay but that does not seem to be inherently unfair. Sports fans are predominantly male so the high price of tickets for pro football games affects males primarily. T’he she pays for what she calls the privilege of pursuing her profession is not therefore discriminatory. Unless there are other conditions that make the price an individual pays for an item unfairly high, there does not seem to be any reason to hold that the price women pay to satisfy gendered preferences is exorbitant.
2.3 The gendered division of per se is not objectionable.
I hate doing woman stuff: that’s why I’m a feminist. But I do not see how, as a woman, my interests are set back if the majority of women occupy positions that I myself would not choose—so long as this state of affairs does not restrict my options.
Those of us who are inclined to identify welfare with preference satisfaction have to deal with the criticism that the satisfaction of desires that are too impersonal, or too attached to individuals other than the agent, does not benefit the agent. The desires of moralistic busybodies are a case in point. Busybodies may want others to abstain from sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll but, intuitively, satisfying that desire does not contribute to their wellbeing: intuitively, it is no skin off their noses if others indulge.
Similarly, even though I might wish more women were working in traditionally male jobs, the fact that women are disproportionately represented in pink-collar occupations is no skin off my nose. Consequently, I do not see why the disproportionate representation of women in “helping professions” and drudge work is problematic provided that the choices of women to work at these jobs represent their authentic preferences, adaptive or otherwise. If it does then no one can complain: women who do these jobs are getting what they want and no one else is harmed.
The problem is that the gendered division of labor does not reflect women’s ceteris paribus preferences. It signals, and as I shall argue, contributes to inequality of opportunity—and that, I have suggested, is objectionable. If so then feminism, in the interests of improving women’s lot, while not committed to ending the gendered division of labor as such, should aim to level the playing field so that women (and men) have more options. Understood in this way feminism is not “in tension” with liberalism but is, as I shall argue, a special case of liberalism.
Liberalism assumes that people’s own understanding of what constitutes their good should be tolerated and that their fully voluntary choices should be respected. On this account it is good for people to get what they want, whatever it is—and liberalism is neutral to the extent that it has nothing to say about what people ought to want.
Liberalism is not however committed to getting everyone whatever they want all the time because that is impossible. People’s wants conflict. Solid citizens want to keep their money; crooks want to steal it. Customers at Fry’s Electronics want to deal with sales people who (they imagine) look like electrical engineers—jacketless young men in white shirts and ties; women who do not look like electrical engineers may want to get commissioned sales jobs at Fry’s, but managers in charge of hiring want to accommodate customers.
Liberals’ aim is to adjudicate between conflicting interests so as to maximize freedom in the comprehensive sense, that is, the scope of real options individuals enjoy. They recognize that this cannot be accomplished without state intervention because gender discrimination is rational so that the market by itself will not fix it. For liberals who aim to maximize desire satisfaction, the desire of women to have access to a wider range of jobs outweighs the desire of consumers—and managers responsible for personnel decisions—to hire employees who look the part. Even if consumers prefer to deal with young men when they buy hard drives, have males steam clean their carpets and upholstery, get their cars fixed by Mr. Goodwrench and have hard news delivered by anchor men rather than women, the social costs of accommodating these widespread but mild preferences are high: it restricts women’s options when it comes to their most important concerns—the jobs they can get and the wages they can earn—and also has significant social costs, for example, in contributing to the number of children who live in poverty. That is why liberals support anti-discrimination policies.