January 20 2017
Carrie L. Lukas
Political conversations about women and work tend to center on the need to get more women into top jobs. While it’s wonderful to see a growing number of women taking on leadership roles in major companies and organizations, most women are far less concerned about reaching the corner office than finding a job that they enjoy, pays enough to make ends meet, and allows them to build the life they want.
Consider the last time that you had to decide on a job offer. What factors did you consider? You probably thought about how much you would be paid. But you probably also considered how long it would take you to get to and from work each day; if you would like what you were doing; if it would position you for a better job next year or the year after that. Would you have to wear a uniform? How many hours must you work each day and how much flexibility is there?
You may have asked about benefits, like paid time off or health insurance subsidies. You likely also considered if you would like your boss and coworkers.
People prioritize different elements of jobs. Some really want to make as much money as they can, while others most want a job they find personally rewarding.
Research conducted on women’s workplace preferences show that, on average, women who have children place a higher value on flexibility, while those who don’t have kids care more about salary. And, unsurprisingly, men and women tend to have different priorities: Men are willing to commute farther and travel more for a job, while women are more likely to prefer jobs that are closer to home, even if that means they earn less.
None of these preferences is wrong. If you decided to take a job that paid a little less because you loved the people you’d be working with and the hours worked for your personal goals, then that’s a great decision for you. If you decided to take a different job — the most demanding job, with the longest hours and a heavy travel schedule, because it paid well and would set you up for the career of your dreams — then that’s also a great decision.
Only you know what your dreams are: Whether you aspire to be a millionaire and high-powered professional or if you want a job that you enjoy and helps support your other dreams of being an active member in your community or head of the PTA or something in between.
These individual decisions and considerations get lost when we look simply at aggregate data about the workforce. When people see the Department of Labor statistic showing that working women on average earn about 80 percent of what male workers earn, they tend to assume that something has gone wrong. Sexist bosses or societal attitudes are holding women back and keeping us from achieving equality.
Yet really, most of the differences in earnings are driven by the decisions individuals make about what kind of work to do and how many hours they want to spend on the job, and these are a reflection of individual preferences, not a problem that needs to be solved.
I’m sure that most of the men I went to college with are earning a lot more than I do. But I work for a nonprofit doing work that I love and that I believe is important. I work plenty of hours, but those hours are flexible, which means that I have been able to spend a lot of time with my young children. These were the right choices for me, even if I’ve failed to maximize my income or missed my chance to be on a corporate board.
It’s important that women and girls know that they can be anything they want to be. Equality of opportunity — making sure that women have the same opportunities as men to pursue the career of their dream — is paramount. But we shouldn’t expect women and men to follow the same paths when it comes to work.
So long as women and men are freely making the choices that make sense for them, we shouldn’t fixate on those statistics. People need to pursue their own versions of happiness.