The heated rhetoric of "war against women" -- unexpectedly prominent in this election season -- has shifted from reproductive issues to those of women's work. Democrats accuse Republicans of being hostile to women's rights in the workplace; Republicans accuse Democrats of being hostile to stay-at-home moms. And, as usual, the real issues are lost amid the one-upmanship.
The Democratic argument has focused on fair pay. Mitt Romney, the almost-certain Republican presidential nominee, is under fire for failing to state his clear support for the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, signed into law in 2009, which expands workers' ability to sue employers for sex discrimination in pay. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's recent repeal of portions of a law allowing sex discrimination claims in that state's courts has been cited as further evidence that Republicans are out to eviscerate women's rights.
But the fair pay issue isn't that simple. One common factoid is that women working full-time earn 77 cents to a man's dollar. (Bureau of Labor Statistics data for 2010 actually put the figure at 81 cents.) It's often taken to mean women doing the same work as men. But the statistics include all working men and women -- who, in many cases, do not perform the same jobs.
Nor do pay disparities in the same field always prove discrimination. A 2007 study published in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology found that female ob-gyns had annual incomes about 20 percent lower than their male counterparts, but this gap was almost entirely due to working shorter hours, seeing fewer patients, and performing fewer procedures.
Republicans have been ridiculed for suggesting that women's lower pay is due largely to personal and family choices. Yet economists, including prominent female scholars such as Harvard's Claudia Goldin, largely agree. Women are far more likely than men to interrupt or curtail paid work while raising children and to choose jobs with more family-friendly hours.
True, some choices are based not just on personal preference but on social expectations -- just as the pressure to be a good provider often pushes men to take more arduous and dangerous jobs. But there is little that employers, or government, can do to change that.
Studies do show that, even accounting for differences in education, occupation, work history and work hours, men still tend to earn 5 to 10 percent more than women. Some of this gap may be due to men negotiating higher salaries or other subtle factors. Some is undoubtedly due to discrimination: Sexism, conscious or unconscious, is not extinct. And, in some cases, lawsuits are the appropriate remedy.
But not every disagreement over specific legislation is a "war on women." The Lily Ledbetter Act extended the deadline for discrimination lawsuits under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, but a larger window of opportunity for such claims already existed under the Equal Pay Act.
Just as overblown is the Republican attempt to spin a Democratic activist's off-the-cuff remark two weeks ago that Ann Romney, a mother of five, "never worked a day in her life" into a war on moms. Of course full-time mothers work hard, often doing important community work in addition to child-rearing. Unfortunately, praise for mothers at home is often tinged with the insinuation that mothers who work outside the home are bad and selfish and that motherhood is a woman's true vocation.
We live in a time when technology offers growing opportunities to combine workforce participation with family life, and when work-family balance is a concern for both women and men. It's about time our political debate began to reflect those realities.