Beyond Equality of the Sexes

Dr. Roback is Associate Professor of Economics at George Mason University.

This essay is adapted from Dr. Roback’s article in the Georgetown Law Journal, vol. 82, no. 1. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, © 1993 Georgetown Law Journal & Georgetown University.

Many readers of this journal are well aware of the many flaws in the statistical evidence purporting to prove the existence of substantial discrimination against women. Typically, these limitations of discrimination statistics are pointed out by people such as myself who oppose further government intervention to reduce the earnings gap. But I have repeatedly observed that these arguments are not persuasive to my opponents. In fact, those who disagree with me are often infuriated by the arguments, even while acknowledging their theoretical correctness.

Rather than repeat the statistical debates, I propose to open some slightly different areas for discussion. The emotional intensity of the discussion of the earnings gap between men and women is typically far out of proportion to the magnitude of the problem as measured by the data. What might account for this intensity of feeling? If the problem is really about earnings, or even relative earnings, why do high status women, with high educational attainment and earnings, seem to be the most distressed, not to say embittered, about it? Many women are far from satisfied, despite the gains in women’s economic status. Some argue that this dissatisfaction arises because the goal of equality has not been completely achieved. I shall argue that the problem lies in the goal of equality itself, and in the means chosen to attain it.

My claim is that equalizing earnings is a flawed social goal. I do not conclude from this, however, that women ought to retire passively from public life and return docilely to the kitchen. I believe that improving the well-being of women is an important and worthy social objective that requires their full participation in every aspect of American life. What I dispute is that the equalization of earnings, or of any other particular indicator, is an accurate index of women’s well-being. In short, making women equal to men in any particular is not equivalent to making women better off.

Why We Are Not Persuaded by Statistics

I have a working hypothesis about why my opponents in the debates are unsympathetic with arguments over the statistics. They feel that I am telling them that there is no discrimination, when they know perfectly well that they have experienced it themselves. We are not having an argument about the statistics at all: we are having an argument about the significance of our experience.

Frequently, the discussion begins to shift away from the “official” evidence at this point. People begin to make claims about relative bargaining power in the employment context, or about relative ability to judge and protect one’s own interests, or about the presence of hidden costs assessed on overly assertive women. These claims are inherently more difficult to quantify with any accuracy, even though most people have observed the phenomena under discussion in their own lives. All too often, the conversation breaks down at this point, both because of our lack of professional expertise and because of the intensity of feeling that inevitably surrounds one’s personal experience.

I have come to believe that the critical point in the conversation is when we begin, finally, to discuss the aspects of the problem that we know from ordinary personal experience. These are the things we actually care about. It is unfortunate that we sometimes disqualify ourselves from speaking about the very things we feel most strongly about. Our lack of formal training in these matters does not invalidate the reality of our experience and our feelings about that experience.

We who are trained in the social science tradition rely heavily on statistical evidence because we believe it conveniently summarizes information about a wide variety of cases. It seems safer to generalize from information drawn from a large sample than from cases that a single individual could personally observe. We even have a pejorative name for personal evidence: we call it “anecdotal evidence.”

But surely one can imagine situations in which the statistical average is of much less interest than the evidence drawn from personal experience. Suppose a parent faces the question of whether to give her child an over-the-counter medication, with a minuscule probability of harm to the child. Suppose further that this child’s full-blooded sibling has had an adverse reaction to this medication. Surely, it is not irrational for the mother to refuse to give this medication to her second child. The fact that her first child’s bad reaction was statistically unlikely is of no comfort to her. She is certainly not irrational to place an extremely heavy weight on the one observation closest to her. Consider another person who has used an unconventional therapy to gain relief from a painful and potentially deadly illness. Perhaps all the studies show that this particular therapy is not successful in a statistical sense. Surely this individual is not irrational to give greater weight to his own success than to the experience of strangers summarized in a study. This fortunate individual will be completely committed to the unconventional method of treatment. He is unlikely to be persuaded to abandon his therapy on the basis of statistical generalizations, no matter how sound.

I believe that the discussion of discrimination and segregation is more similar to these examples than we might suppose. People are often discussing their experiences more than the generalizations. And I believe that is proper. A person who has been subjected to a painful and humiliating experience ought not to disregard it. Whether the experience is one of discrimination by an employer or abuse by a government agency, surely it ought to figure prominently in one’s subsequent behavior and thinking.

Some of the passion surrounding the interpretation of the “official” evidence arises because those who feel victimized are infuriated by the claim that their experience is statistically unlikely. They feel that their experience is being discounted, and that in some way they and their experience do not matter. Most people do not react very well to being told that they do not matter.

An unsympathetic reader might think that the use of” soft” evidence is confined solely to matters that involve women, but I have observed this phenomenon in totally unrelated matters. For instance, the reaction to public choice theory often bears some relationship to the person’s background.

I have noticed that many of my public choice colleagues come from rather modest backgrounds. As I look up and down the corridor at George Mason, and as I recollect the participants at Public Choice Society meetings, i observe a large percentage of people from working class or agricultural backgrounds. It seems that such people are quite comfortable with the notion that elected officials and public administrators are motivated by personal gain. Most of my public choice colleagues do not realistically imagine themselves grasping the levers of power. Stripping the illusion of the “disinterested public servant” is relatively easy for people like myself and my colleagues. We do not have to give up any cherished image of ourselves or people close to us. We do not become squeamish about the exercise of power that we never were going to have in the first place.

Not so my former colleagues and students at Yale. Many members of the Yale community have realistic aspirations for or actual experience of wielding political power. The “disinterested public servant” may be a beloved relative of theirs who devoted a lifetime to doing what he thought best. It becomes easier to justify governmental power for those who can reasonably foresee people like themselves exercising the discretion necessarily involved in public life. It is more costly for people in relatively privileged positions to fully embrace the public choice paradigm and all its implications.

I will not speculate about the “real” evidence that might be motivating those who disagree with me about appropriate policy for dealing with the earnings gap. But I will try to provide some clarity from my own corner of this debate. I will try to reflect on the “real” reasons why I am reluctant to endorse government intervention to improve the status of women.

In some respects, my experience is similar to that of my opponents. I have experienced discrimination. I have experienced sexual harassment. Despite my skepticism about the statistical evidence of discrimination, I am not so wanting in candor as to claim that it does not exist.

But these experiences have not devastated me, nor have they been especially formative in my thinking or behavior. Indeed, i have been upset the most not by anything that has happened to me but by incidents my students have reported to me. I find it much worse to hear from my students that they have been discriminated against in job interviews or sexually harassed. I feel protective of my students and responsible for them. But I am powerless to protect them once they are out of my care. The devastation of feeling powerless is a theme to which I shall return.

It would take me a long time to explain why I am unwilling to empower the government to correct social ills, even very serious and painful ones like discrimination. But I can say why I think the pursuit of equality cannot work. My reasons are real, not statistical or theoretical.

Why Equality Cannot Work

Consider what the realization of equality implies. I can either try to be more like the other person, or I can try to get the other person to be more like me. In my experience, trying to be more like the men I observe focuses my attention outside myself and leads me to judge myself with reference to external rather than internal cues. I turn the volume way down on my own signals of what I like and dislike, what is important to me, what gives me satisfaction, what makes me proud.

It would be foolish to assert that one can or should make these judgments entirely independently of input from other people. But my experience has been that too much input from others leads me far afield from myself. I cannot increase my happiness by judging myself with reference to others because as I look outside myself, I forget myself. In the pursuit of equality, I forget what makes me happy. Ultimately, I become angry and start looking around for someone to blame. But in truth, my discomfort comes not from others but from my inattention to my own needs, wants, and values.

This is the real reason I am persuaded that increasing equality is not the same as increasing anybody’s well-being. It is not a theoretical argument for me; it is my actual experience. The most miserable times in my life have been when I was most anxiously mimicking people (men and women alike) I regarded as successful. I have not successfully maximized my own utility by trying to be equal to anyone. My utility is maximized by learning from others while still attending to my own values.

Nowhere does this conflict between equality and utility become more dramatic than in the balancing of children and work. Shall we women try to be as much like men as possible? Shall we arrange our affairs so that the arrival of our children has a minimal impact on our working lives? Or shall we relish the fact that a once-in-a-lifetime, never-to-be-repeated person has come into our world?

Here is the contribution of the late Jonathan R. T. Hughes to my life. I told him about the arrival of my two-year-old adopted son and the impending arrival of my daughter, who was born six months later. Jonathan said to me: “When you get to be my age, you realize that being a parent was the one thing in life that was really worth doing.” As he was dying of cancer when he said that to me, I place great weight on his testimony. I recall his words on a daily basis as I make my decisions about time at home and time at work.

The alternative approach to equality would be to try to get the other person to behave as I do. This approach almost inevitably leads to power struggles. I want my husband to do his fair share of the household chores. I want my colleagues to do their fair share of departmental grunt work. It sounds so reasonable when expressed that way. But actually it is not reasonable at all; it is so unreasonable that it is crazy-making. For when I want my husband to do “his half” of household chores, what I really mean is that I want him to do half of everything important to me. But he has his own priorities. He values some things that I do not, and he does not value everything I do. Among the things we both value, he assigns different relative importance to each item.

Now the reality is that I am no more important or valuable than anyone else in this world, including my husband. It is not my business to tell him what he ought to value, and how much. And he, in turn, is no more valuable or important than I am. He has no intrinsic right to control my agenda. So what to do?

This seems like a problem only because the objective was chosen originally to be “equality.” Clearly there is no one right or correct way to adjudicate between two people’s conflicting values in matters of this kind. We cannot possibly be “equal” because there is no underlying metric that would allow us to compare ourselves in any meaningful way. I am continually astonished by the amount of ill-will and chaos that I can create by trying to force other people to be the way I want them to be.

My way out of the problem is to ignore equality and get on with my real business. My values are mine to choose and mine to pursue. If I am doing too much for others, I am the one who needs to say no to them and yes to myself. Other people in my life can be helpful to me, but it is not their duty to be so. The most effective appeal for help is a simple direct request, not an appeal to equality. A statement like, “Would you be willing to do this for me, it is important to me,” has some chance of being heard with sympathy. As a side benefit, I can offer some genuine coop eration and even generosity when I stop keeping score on my partner.

On the other hand, I am more likely to encounter resistance and outright hostility with a statement like, “You owe it to me to do this for me, because I did that for you yesterday, and last week, and the week before that.” I have a way of magnifying my own contributions and minimizing the other person’s, because I am not really engaged in an accounting project. In fact, I am trying to persuade someone to do something of value to me. People are most uncooperative when I am minimizing their efforts.

Thus, the appeal to equality is not a successful persuasive strategy. Nor does it enhance the pleasure of my interpersonal relationships. On the contrary, trying to be more equal by trying to get the other person to be more like me creates power struggles with all the conflict and unpleasantness they inevitably entail. I can honestly say that the pursuit of “equality” per se has not increased my utility or happiness. Indeed, that pursuit has never even allowed me a moment’s peace.

This is a clue to the passions surrounding discussions of the earnings gap between the sexes. The objective of equality has frustration built into it, because it is un-achievable. It is also a clue to why so many professional women, who have attained high educations, incomes, and status, seem to be the most embittered about the earnings gap. I observe far less anger about women’s status among my friends who are full-time mothers or who work part-time or in traditionally female jobs. These women’s lives are not without problems. They too have complaints and concerns. But their concerns are different from those that dominate academic discussions of the earnings gap. These friends of mine have interpreted the women’s movement as offering them a variety of opportunities from which to choose, not as requiring them to achieve parity or sameness with men.

On the other hand, those of us who have chosen to pursue high-powered careers in male- dominated professions have taken the goal of equality the most seriously. We have modeled our careers on male career paths, our behavior on male behavior. We have attained the rewards of these lives, but also some of the problems.

In particular, we are the ones who actively engage in the interpersonal comparisons and competitiveness that the equality paradigm invites. But we are often confused about the difference between well-being and income. In trying to be equal in the myriad of behaviors necessary for equalizing incomes, we distort our choices and betray our own values. We actually make ourselves worse off in the scramble to become equal to men.

If, on the other hand, we pursue the strategy of trying to get the men in our immediate environment to be more like us, we enter into a power struggle with them. We embark upon a path that can only lead to frustration. For the pursuit of power, once begun, is insatiable. No amount of control will ever be enough. And as we enter into the power struggle with the people who are supposed to be the closest and most important to us, we encounter a very basic human difficulty.

We are in fact powerless over the most important things in our lives. Birth, death, health, ability—we control none of them in any ultimate sense. We can control some of their determinants, but we cannot control the final result. We resist admitting this, because we hate that feeling of powerlessness. Yet powerlessness is the most basic fact about our interpersonal relationships as well.

We cannot control what other people do, think, or feel. Other persons are autonomous acting individuals with goals and values of their own. We can influence others, sometimes decisively. We can choose to surround ourselves with people whose values are most in harmony with our own. But we cannot control the final outcome. Because we need other people in our lives, we necessarily experience a great deal of powerlessness. And we hate that.

When we try to achieve equality by trying to control others, we are refusing to face the basic reality of the limits of our own effectiveness. Powerlessness is not uniquely a women’s issue. It is a human issue. In many respects, traditional sex roles make it more difficult for men to embrace their own limitations than for women. Men were supposed to be powerful, invincible, and in control. They were not supposed to admit to their weakness, vulnerability, or neediness. By trying to imitate men in the pursuit of power, we women have actually signed up for one of the most fruitless endeavors imaginable.

Some might object that I have given up on equality too easily. Surely, equality is valuable and even necessary. Of course, in some dimensions, we need equality very much. But trying to achieve equality in inappropriate arenas is actually destructive.

For instance, I frequently spend more time with my four-year-old son than with my one-year- old daughter. I agonize over this, as I suppose most parents would. Is it because he is older, or because he is adopted, or because (heaven forbid) he is a boy? The fact is that his needs are complex and many, while hers are simple and few. It would be foolish for me to take her to speech therapy twice a week because he needs it and she should be treated equally. I am equally committed to meeting their needs, whatever they might be, whenever they might arise. But that is not the same as equalizing any particular contribution to them. Both children would be worse off, that is, both would have their needs met less well, if I tried to equalize in that way.

Likewise, we can be committed to the principle that men and women are equally valuable without insisting that they receive identical incomes. (What madness to suppose that a person’s income measures her value!) We can be committed to the principle that men and women alike should be free to choose their occupations, the extent of their family commitments, and the level of their working effort, without insisting that all make the same choices.


These then, are the real reasons why i believe that the pursuit of sexual equality of incomes is a flawed social goal. I have tried to apply the principles that would lead to equal incomes to my own life, and have consistently found the result to be disappointing. I have no reason to believe that the application of these principles on a more general scale, through political processes, would be any more satisfactory. Noting the wide variety of behaviors that would have to be equalized in order to equalize incomes, noting the scope of the intervention required to completely eliminate employer differentiation between men and women, the project seems impossible from the outset.

Moreover, government policies required to equalize incomes would certainly not be agreed to by everyone. When I distort my own values in the name of equality, at least I am the one choosing the alternative values. The values chosen by government policy makers reflect the values of a politically dominant coalition. Certainly some, perhaps most, people will find their relative values distorted by the imposition of politically determined taxes and subsidies on various activities. If I try privately to model my behavior after men, I can at least arrest the process if I find it wanting. The distortions created by government policy would necessarily be more difficult to correct. I have found trying to equalize incomes by equalizing behavior to be self-defeating at the personal level. Extrapolating the project from the personal to the societal can only increase the odds of failure.

And what of the power struggle? Can I convince myself that using governmental power to achieve income parity between men and women will avoid the ugliness that I have consistently observed when people try to control each other? Do I believe that hiding behind the political process makes the effort to control another person any less distasteful to them, or any more ennobling of myself? Am I persuaded that powerlust for the sake of equality can be satisfied any more than powerlust for any other objective?

I am not so persuaded. I do not so believe. I am not so convinced. And these are the real reasons that I oppose further government intervention to equalize the incomes of men and women.