Posted by: bridget | 4 June 2007

Feminism: Not About Self-Pity

The ever-controversial Linda Hirshman continues the tough love for smart, ambitious women. In a Washington Post article, she outlines why women earn less than men, even though more women go to college and, at college, get better grades than men.

“But unless today’s women make some changes, that’s exactly what may happen. This goes beyond that conventional salary-disparity culprit, workplace discrimination, that was the subject of a Supreme Court ruling last week. If Funk and her female classmates don’t prosper as much as their male colleagues do, it will probably be because they didn’t dream rich enough dreams in choosing their major.”

Ms. Hirshman chronicled how women mommy-track themselves before they graduate from college. By choosing majors without considering future earnings, women set themselves up to earn less than men once they graduate. Men who find passions in certain fields will often seek a law degree or a MBA afterwards; women head towards non-profits. Thus, when a couple has to decide who stays at home with the children, it is invariably the lower-earning (albeit equally-educated) woman.

Undoubtedly, Hirshman’s article will bring a storm of criticism from those who think that public-sector jobs ought to pay the same as private-sector jobs (on account of “fairness”) and those who think that she is giving employers a free pass to discriminate against women.  The “innate differences” crowd may also use her latest article as ammunition against women who have experienced discrimination.

That’s sad, because Ms. Hirshman is giving educated, ambitious women a how-to guide for success. Women who voluntarily sacrifice money for job satisfaction ought to not be surprised when they earn less than their male peers. A high school student who would like to have a successful career ought to look at colleges with that in mind, choose her major accordingly, and choose a job related to that major which gives her more earning potential.

Ms. Hirshman did not address the falling marriage rate, feminisation of poverty, and increased rate of out-of-wedlock births, all of which underscore the fact that women need to be self-sufficient. We are shortchanging women by not emphasising the importance of stable, well-paying jobs; we operate under the assumption that it is most important for women to follow their dreams and contribute to society, paychecks be damned.  While public service and job satisfaction are laudable goals, neither one of them will fund a 401k.



  1. THat is really great perspective. My parents definitely brought me up to realize that even if being a wife and mom was what i wanted to do forever, that i needed to be capeable of making money. Most my aunts had horrible 1st husbands and ended up needing to support themselves and kids for a bit… they used them as examples of why I needed something. I know if I had to work tomorrow that I could support my family (though it would really bum me out to have to leave my kids that much.) Its practical advise.

  2. Making comparisons across different fields is like comparing apples to oranges- obviously a man with more education who chooses to go after a more lucrative career will make more money- no one is disputing that fact. And I do think that job satisfaction is an important goal, and one that can be achieved while funding a 401K. I’ve recently read some really inspiring articles in More Magazine about women in their 40s, who were unsatisfied despite the fact that they were making good money, and took a risk to find their true passion. Personally, I find this admirable, and think many women would agree.

  3. I always think it is sad that we think that money is the way to judge success. I grew up on a family farm, both my parents were necessary for the farm to function. I watched my Dad close a couple of profitable side-business because they were interfering with our family life.
    Yes both men and women need to be able to support themselves, but I think putting money on top is a sad commentary.
    It is also an easy trap to fall in, none of us married farmers so my brother and sister and I farm together. After Dad died we needed to hire help to do the work he had been doing. One day we realized that we had sent our sons out to learn how to do something from an employee (could have been a daughter, but sadly we only have boys). Now this was a great employee and a capable teacher but where were our priorities. So we downsized to what we could do with just our family and started teaching our children ourselves.
    I know this a long comment a little off the subject, but my point is that I am serious when I say the amount of money anyone makes is probably not the best judge of their success.
    So my hat is off to anyone (man or woman) who chooses a major that may lead to less money and more happiness

  4. PS just read my post. My sons and my nephews all fill me with joy, I am not sad about any of them. I meant to point out, that any girls would have learned the business just like my sister did. And yes, I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to have a little girl.

  5. Hmmm…I saw Hershman in an interview and her point in the interview was that women have no right to make those decisions because it affects the rest of the women around, and that women are obligated to make choices that will maximize their earning potential.

    She said nothing about personal responsibility to accept lower wages for choosing less worthwhile work, and instead stressed a woman’s responsibility to make her decisions based on the good of “the movement”.

    Maybe she made different points in her book.

    I used her interview as an example of “liberal fascism” in my blog.

  6. Teresa,

    Thanks for stopping in. I think that there is a fundamental difference between asking people to take responsibility for themselves and to understand the long-term consequences (to them) of their actions, and telling people how to act for the sake of others.

    IMHO, it is equally reprehensible to tell women that they “should” go into teaching or public service because they ought to “help others” as it is to tell them that they must get MBAs to “help others [here, the woman’s movement].”

    Sunday School Teacher,

    Agreed, sort of. While money should not be the only consideration, we shortchange people by not asking them to consider it as part of their career considerations. If it’s important to you to be able to send your kids to good public high schools and good colleges, you’re going to need a job to pay those bills. If it’s important to be able to have one parent stay at home with the kids, then you’re going to need to save up enough money beforehand to make that financially feasible.

    For women, especially, money is important. I know that sounds weird, but women live longer and need more retirement money. The biological issue – that women get pregnant – means that women ought to be able to support themselves and a child. Fact is, MOST of the people in poverty are women. Frankly, to not tell high-achieving women know that they could spend their elder years in poverty if they continue to follow a career path is senseless.

    Imagine a woman who focuses on job fulfillment and family. She stays home with the kids, works part-time at the school, and her husband hands her divorce papers when she’s 45. She now has about 20 years to earn enough money to keep her alive throughout her entire retirement. Her job skills and experience are in non-profits. She’ll probably spend a lot of her life near the poverty line, even though she’s educated and could have developed a financially secure way of living her life.

    (Of course, the big problem here is that the liberalisation of divorce laws has done nothing but screw over women, pardon my language, but that’s not going to change any time soon!)

    In short: there is a fundamental difference between focusing on financial security and focusing on wealth. We’re seriously abdicating responsibility to young women by letting them assume that financial security will happen for them and they can “follow their dreams.”

  7. But don’t studies show that women who hold the same jobs as men generally earn less?

  8. True, Eric. Even coming out of school with the same credentials, women earn less. There is some evidence that women who bargain hard get turned down for jobs.

    Nevertheless, it’s better financially to be paid $51,000 for an engineering job (instead of the $53,000 that your male colleague gets) than to be paid $24,000 for being a math teacher. I think that was Hirshman’s point.

  9. My “self-pity” comment was in reference to the fact that Hirshman is tough on women, too – she sees no reason for us to choose less demanding professions or ones which earn less. After all, we have enough men trying to keep us down – why do it ourselves, too?

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