Family Issues

What Happened to Equality for All?

The troubling sexual politics of Obama's Council on Women and Girls

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Amidst troubling reports of our nation's economic woes and pressing national security issues, one news story earlier this month received fairly little attention: President Obama's March 11 executive order establishing a White House Council on Women and Girls. While the Council's role is likely to be more symbolic than practical, its creation, and the accompanying rhetoric, suggests that the Obama White House is bringing a blinkered, outdated approach to gender issues—one that, far from transcending ideological divisions, takes us back to a narrow and dogmatic feminist ideology.

According to the White House press release, the purpose of the Council is to "ensure that agencies across the federal government…take into account the particular needs and concerns of women and girls." Specifically, it will focus on "improving women's economic security," promoting policies that help balance work and family, preventing violence against women, and furthering women's health care.

In his remarks at the signing, Barack Obama noted that women have made great strides since the days when his grandmother encountered a glass ceiling after reaching the level of bank vice president. Yet, despite the broken barriers, he argued that "inequalities stubbornly persist": "women still earn just 78 cents for every dollar men make"; "one in four women still experiences domestic violence in their lifetimes"; and, despite being close to half the workforce, women make up only 17 percent of members of Congress and 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs.

But are these inequalities rooted in discrimination and fixable by the government? Numerous studies show that when differences in training, work hours, and continuity of employment are taken into account, the pay gap all but disappears. Most economists, including liberal feminists such as Harvard's Claudia Goldin, agree that while sex discrimination exists, male-female disparities in earnings and achievement are due primarily to personal choices and priorities. Women are far more likely than men to avoid jobs with 60-hour workweeks and to scale down their careers while raising children. They are also more likely to choose less lucrative but more fulfilling jobs.

There is an ongoing debate on whether these differences are biological or cultural. Many scientists argue that men in general are innately more competitive and aggressive, while women are more risk-averse, more interested in interpersonal connections, and more intensely bonded to small children. (There are, of course, numerous exceptions to these tendencies.) Others stress the role of socialization, pointing out that people's choices and preferences are influenced by gender stereotypes and cultural expectations from early childhood.

The jury is still out on the nature-vs.-nurture debate; most likely, differences between the sexes are shaped by a mix of biology and culture. Certainly, cultural pressures and double standards persist. A woman is far more likely to encounter societal disapproval if she works long hours and leaves her children in someone else's care—even if that someone else is the children's father. A man is far more likely to encounter disapproval if he is not the family breadwinner.

Yet focusing on job discrimination will not help us address these deep-seated prejudices. Indeed, making work-family policy a part of the agenda of the Council on Women and Girls seems to reinforce the stereotype that family issues are a female domain. (Why not a Council on Families instead?)

As for combating violence against women, it is, of course, a worthy goal. But plenty of men and boys are victims of family violence as well. The same federal study which found that one in four women in the United States have been assaulted by a partner at least once also found that nearly 40 percent of domestic assault victims every year are men. Women face higher risk of injury due to disparities in size and strength; but the problem of abused men, though largely neglected, is hardly negligible.

Nor is it clear why women's health care deserves special focus, given that in many areas of health men are doing worse than women. As a result of women's health activism, medical issues specific to women have already been receiving disproportionate attention and funding since the 1990s.

Indeed, one might ask why the only gender-specific issues that seem to deserve federal attention are ones that affect women. Why not look at the fact that men account for 80 percent of suicides and 90 percent of workplace fatalities (as well as 70 percent of nonfatal on-the-job injuries)? What about the troubling trend of boys and young men lagging substantially behind their female peers in education, with women earning nearly 60 percent of college degrees at a time when a college diploma is increasingly essential in the job market? Why not talk about the marginalization of fatherhood and the fact that many men who want to be involved in their children's lives are denied that chance?

This is not a call for a new federal bureaucracy for "men's issues." However, the discussion of gender equality in our culture needs to include these issues. For the White House to exclude them while calling for a new effort to combat inequality is at best myopic.

The Bush White House was often assailed for building its policies on ideological myths rather than facts and "reality-based" thinking. So far, the Obama administration's initiatives on women are not exactly reality-based.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at
Reason magazine. This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.