When Democrats return to town this week, at the top of their to-do list is to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act. The bill is intended to address the so-called wage gap, or the Census Bureau data showing that women working full time earn 80 percent of what men earn.

Democrats have been trying to pass this bill for 20 years—and it shows. The bill is an antiquated, ham-handed approach to a problem that surveys tell us is not nearly as pervasive as Democrats claim. Moreover, the data makes clear that—and this is shocking, so prepare yourselves—women have different preferences and priorities than men and make employment decisions accordingly. The wage gap, it turns out, is actually more of a choice gap. (That’s not just my assertion, these Harvard scientists back it up.)

This is especially true when you consider that the wage-gap data point itself is somewhat misleading. As a 2016 Cornell University study showed, the wage comparison is not a direct comparison of equal pay for equal work; rather, it’s simply a ratio of women’s average hourly pay to men’s average hourly pay. As the study’s authors put it: “The jobs in the comparison are not the same, and when these differences are taken into account, the ratio of women’s pay to men’s rises to almost 92 percent from 79 percent.”

That isn’t to say that pay disparities don’t exist. They do. In fact, Hollywood, home of all the liberal lights just dying to lecture the rest of us, has a huge pay disparity between men and women in film. American women have a long history of fighting for equal treatment under the law, and pay disparities, where they exist as a result of nefarious intent or simple abuse, should be challenged in court.

But the Paycheck Fairness Act starts from the assumption that the only possible reason women make 80 cents to every man’s dollar is that employers (probably men!) discriminate against them, full stop. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), speaking at the bill’s rollout in January, called the wage gap “an injustice that persists to the present day.”

The problem is that her millennial cohort doesn’t seem to agree. In 2013, a Pew Research survey among millennials found the following:

“. . . large majorities of working men (73 percent) and working women (75 percent) say that where they work, men and women are paid about the same amount for doing the same job. Only one-in-ten says women are paid less than men.

Similar majorities of men (73 percent) and women (72 percent) say that at their workplace, women have about the same opportunities as men to advance to top executive and professional positions. Some 14 percent say women have fewer opportunities for promotions or advancement.”

The Choice Gap

Other surveys raise equally compelling data points about the preferences women have when it comes to work. It turns out, stunning as it may seem, that women and men prioritize different things. Specifically, women make employment choices based on quality-of-life issues and flexibility—not pay.

A 2016 Gallup survey found that women, when choosing a job, ranked as their top three concerns “the ability to do what they do best, greater work-life balance and better personal well-being, and greater stability and job security.”

In fact, the biggest gender gap represented in the study was on work-life balance. Sixty percent of women consider it “very important,” while only 48 percent of men do. The same imbalance exists when the survey asked about increased income: 43 percent of men cited increased income as “very important,” while only 39 percent of women did.

Choosing to have kids also has a massive impact on what women want from the workplace—or if they want to work at all.

A Census Bureau study found that women’s childbearing years and career-building years coincide from 25 to 35 and result in a drop in pay for women who have children during those years, relative to their male counterparts. Other data tells us that “women are more likely to reduce their work hours, take time off, turn down a promotion or quit their jobs to care for family . . . And when women work fewer hours, they are paid disproportionally less and become less likely to get raises or promotions.”

No, Europe Doesn’t Do It Better

This is where the comparisons to Europe always come in. “But if we only had paid family leave and state-financed day care, women and men could finally be equal!”

But, interestingly, having a baby massively lowers earnings for women in every country where it’s been studied, even countries with generous welfare systems like Denmark, Germany, and Sweden. In Denmark, for example, where “new parents [get] an entire year of paid leave after the birth of a child” and “the government offers public nursery care for children under 3 at the equivalent of $737 a month,” the wage gap is the same as in the United States.

Turns out, many women the world over choose to stay home with their young children. A new study by the National Bureau of Economic Research makes plain that the international wage gap is mostly driven not by changes in wages or hours (though those do have an impact), but changes in the odds that women work at all.

What’s even more interesting, however, is that survey data tells us that women aren’t being forced into caregiver roles—they’re choosing them.

In 2016, Gallup surveyed women who have children under 18 and do not work. Over half of them said their desire to stay home with their children is the “major reason” they are not working. When asked if they might return to work, 53 percent said flexible hours or work schedules would be a “major factor” in their decision. Four in 10 stay-at-home moms said the same about being able to work from home when necessary.

Pew Research conducted a similar survey a few years earlier and found that “women who have experienced a significant career interruption in order to care for a family member have few regrets. They overwhelmingly say they are glad they did this,” even while acknowledging that it curtailed career advancement.

There are, of course, many women who may want to stay home with their kids but do not have the luxury of doing so. Whether or not the government should get involved with this is an ongoing debate. Many on the Left point to Europe as the vanguard for policies that help women balance work and childcare.
But, as demonstrated, European policies do not necessarily influence women to go back to work after having children. And, as the New York Times has pointed out,

“The same policies that enable women to work in large numbers can also hold them back from reaching senior-level jobs. They become stuck in part-time work or fall behind during long leaves. Women are less likely to work in the United States . . . but when they do, they tend to be more successful.”

The Left never seems comfortable admitting this, but many women actually prioritize and enjoy rearing children and make decisions about employment accordingly. What is at work here is not a rampant culture of discrimination but, rather, trade-offs. Women are more willing to give up higher pay for more comfortable, flexible work.

The Left, who for years has pushed an agenda empowering and celebrating women’s choices, would do well to acknowledge and celebrate this one.

Rachel Bovard

Rachel Bovard is the senior director of policy at the Conservative Partnership Institute.