Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Career & Maternity: When The Irresistible Force Meets The Immovable Object

On Thursday in this Blog post I set about dispelling one or two myths about gender pay differences. It was a popular blog post, generating about seven times as many hits as an average blog post of mine, but it did come with a bit of heat as well as light, mainly to do with the issue regarding how prospective employers may sometimes discriminate against women in their thirties to avoid taking on someone who might soon become pregnant and need maternity leave.

I explained in a subsequent debate that while it is illogical for employers to discriminate due to gender, there are conditions under which they might be driven to discriminate due to maternity. A critic thought that inconsistent, but alas, there is no inconsistency - this only goes to show a misunderstanding of the important difference between gender discrimination and maternity discrimination. Fairly obviously it is not in the interests of an employer to discriminate based on things like gender, skin colour, sexuality, and so forth, but it can be in their interests to discriminate when other factors, like maternity, come into it.

To give you an illustration that makes the point even clearer - an employer might not be discriminatory at all when it comes to young black men but he might choose not to employ a particular young black man because he happened to have four different children by four different women. The same is true in the case of women - an employer may not have any reason to be biased against women in general, but he may have a reason to be biased against women with a high probability of being pregnant soon.

The difference between the first case and the second is that in the case of the black man he could have changed the fact that he was irresponsible enough to father four kids by four different women, whereas a woman who soon wants to be a parent can't change the fact that biological evolution has conditioned that only women have babies.

So, the upshot is this; in life we have this issue to contend with - the immovable force of female biology coming up against the irresistible force of businesses needing to make decisions that are best for their firm's survival, and that in life this sometimes causes a conflict of interest. Despite this, one of the key basics of economics is that sometimes problems that look like they need solutions are in fact non-problems that just describe different people wanting different things or making different life decisions.

What I really want to get across here is that I'm always happy to hear people's views on problems in society, and I am open to hearing solutions - but a lot of the time people want to tell us problems and not attempt to offer solutions. Sometimes it's clear to me that they are non-problems, sometimes they are small problems with no realistic solutions, and sometimes there may well be solutions to make things better - but either way, my interest in these so-called problems dwindles if no one wants to talk about solutions.

Despite some impassioned reactions to my blog, anyone who thinks the maternity pay gap/discrimination situation is a problem that needs changing must at the very least tell us how they think things should be changed, and explain why it's practical - not just complain about the situation with no recourse to resolve it. It's no use saying things are wrong without first establishing that there are things that can be done that actually will help the situation without harming others, and also that there are actually realistic solutions to any problems identified.

The 'without harming others' point is so essential and so often missed - you cannot artificially put things in place to protect one group in the employment market without artificially hindering another group at the same time. For example, there is another group in particular that gets penalised when would-be mothers get artificially protected - that group is the women that don't want any children but may miss out through discrimination to account for all the women that do. As things stand if you're a 33 year old woman that doesn't want kids, you are highly unlikely to require a career break, which means there's no reason for you to be discriminated against. But your prospective employer won't know that, so he or she is likely to believe you have a high probability of being a mother, and may act accordingly.

What's the solution then? The truth is, I don't think there is one (except through some kind of binding contract - of which more in a moment), and I've not heard any single detractor suggest a solution, they've been too busy trying to convince me that there is a problem but offering nothing further.

Control is beyond your control
There are two main reasons that an economy is impossible to command efficiently from on high. The first reason is that the entire nexus of economic activity is just too complex and too diverse for any politician to get a handle on. The second reason is that human beings, even when acting rationally, are still very difficult to map to a final theory of predictable behaviour. Without having full knowledge of the entirety of society and every detail, even a world in which every human acted rationally for the majority of the time would still leave us unable to arrive at a gland slam model on which to base any kind of sovereignty.

Humans are often selfish but they will also act selflessly, particularly when there are selfish gains, but also for sporadic acts of kindness at a cost to themselves. They often have strong moral convictions in one area of life (it is wrong to avoid taxes) but relax their moral convictions in other areas of life (like being willing to cheat on a partner). They will often behave one way when caught up in a group collective, but depart considerably from such behaviour at an individual or familial level. They will be quite prudent in spending money on things they need, but in times when status-mongering or social gain is in front of them they will spend quite recklessly. The upshot is, let humans loose in society and they become a mess of contradictions and opposites.

One relatively small element of this complex society is each individual woman's life choices. Some women will choose an uninterrupted career over motherhood; some will choose motherhood over any kind of career; some will choose motherhood and an interrupted career; and even on top of well-intentioned plans some women will fall pregnant unexpectedly when they didn't plan to, whereas others will plan to fall pregnant and find it never happens.

Society isn't a giant piece of clay that can be moulded exactly as a potter wants it to be - it is a multi-faceted network of activity in which millions of people, including business owners (who themselves have a family and staff to think about), have to make local decisions most conducive to their own survival and well-being.

Consequently, then, legislation that seeks to protect some citizens in the free market against the free choices of other citizens in the free market only usually occurs by harming the latter group - most of whom are individuals trying to make the decisions they can to secure the solvency of their business and the jobs of that business's employees.

Although all I've said favours the contrary to what I'm now going to say, if you have got this far and you still are insisting that some kind of solution be put in place, then all I can say is, when you get a situation like this, where there is a clear distinction between maternity discrimination and gender discrimination, the most obvious solution is some kind of binding contract. After all, let's not forget, an agreement between an employer and an employee is already a binding contract, so if you really want to ensure the artificial protection of one group in society then a binding contract could be the only answer that can be entertained, short of becoming a nation that can arrest people for thought crimes.

The advantage of a contract is most conferred on all the women who don't want kids but who may be treated as they do, but it would also bring transparency to thousands of employment contacts that looked to protect women who didn't yet want kinds and employers who feared they might. If you think it's a problem that requires an interventionist solution (and personally I don't) then that might be your best solution.  And if it isn't you're perfectly welcome to comment below and suggest your own solution. But for goodness' sake, please do give up this habit of telling us all about the problems without first working out the following:

A) Whether they are actually problems or just facts about differences in life.

B) Whether, if they are actually problems, they are problems that can be solved without making the situation worse, or another group equally worse off.

C) What, if they are actually problems that can be solved without making the situation worse, or making another group equally worse off, you are proposing as a solution.

Then, and only then, does this become a proper debate that sheds light instead of heat.