The Trump maternity leave proposal offers no shortage of potential criticisms. But eager to prove the superiority of her own maternity-and-paternity-leave proposal, Clinton has chosen to lead with an interesting one: offering maternity leave without also offering comparable paternity leave will “undercut women in the workplace and depress their wages.” Her campaign argues this “negatively affects women’s return to the workplace, can discourage employers from hiring or promoting female employees, and can increase the gender pay gap.”
This highlights a curious undercurrent in the paid-leave debate. In this one context, left-leaning proponents of the broadest leave mandates endorse whole-heartedly the core conservative argument that (a) policies singling out a group for purportedly better treatment in the workplace may in fact end up harming its members, and (b) women’s choices to take longer breaks from the workforce or opt for greater flexibility are a likely explanation of gender gaps in pay and seniority.
The implications get confusing quickly. Clinton seems to be arguing that offering women options hurts women. The more (and more generous) the offer, the worse the harm. She would cure this by ensuring men are offered more options too.
But the problem is not the existence of the options, it is their exercise. If employers are required to offer both men and women some amount of paid leave, but they know women on average will take more of it, the effect on the workplace will be the same as if women were offered more in the first place. What difference does it make to an employer if every employee has hypothetical access to six weeks paid leave, if it knows to expect most women will take six weeks but most men will take much less?
This goes not just for paid leave but unpaid leave, flex time, and any other option women might be more likely to utilize. Does mandating any of these things therefore “undercut women in the workplace and depress their wages”? Are employers who choose to offer even more flexibility than the law requires therefore undercutting women even further? And how should gender discrimination be policed if federal employment policies are a cause of disparities in pay and promotion and the employers offering women the most generous options are the worst offenders?
The especially committed social engineer might decide to tackle this challenge by attempting to force women’s life choices to conform to men’s, or vice versa. Good luck. Sweden has even tried paying couples to use equal amounts of leave, to little effect.
Until that engineering succeeds, efforts to increase choice and flexibility in the workplace will inevitably bring with them gender-based disparities in employment outcomes. The engineers are clearly aware of this consequence, and presumably prefer it to a world where no one is offered any choice or flexibility at all. They could do us all the courtesy of remembering that when next year’s “Equal Pay Day” comes around. Clinton could start by removing the page on her website that leads with the bolded assertion: “Women shouldn’t make less than men in 2016. Period.”