11/17/2010 01:35 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Fair Pay, Fertile Future

At first blush, the debate over the Paycheck Fairness Act may not look like part of our ongoing national fertility discourse. But the two kinds of "women's work" -- the labor done outside the home (for 23 percent less pay than for men), and the bearing and rearing of the citizenry done at home (for nothing) -- are entirely interdependent. Failure to pass the PFA will give women yet another reason to have fewer kids.

Sound drastic? Look at the bottom line. In the days before birth control, women were stuck having kids, ensuring that they could be compensated unfairly for the work they did both inside and outside the home, without recourse. But things have changed since the arrival of birth control. Women don't have to have any kids anymore, let alone several, and though the ongoing media campaign for the pleasures of pregnancy and childrearing continues, the deal is looking less satisfactory and less necessary to many women. Discriminatory pay is a hidden tax on women and their families, averaging more than $10,000 annually. Add to that the additional costs of rearing and educating the next generation that families bear, and you've got a major disincentive.

As you've noticed, the terms on which women are taking up the motherhood role are changing. Single-child families have more than doubled since the 60s (now 1 in 5). Exploding numbers of women are delaying children into their thirties and forties, in large part because delay provides a shadow benefits system. Delay gives them time to climb career ladders to higher (but still not equal) pay and flexibility that they can't access by other means, ensuring that their kids will be better off and better educated than they would otherwise. Delay also limits the number of kids women can bear by the usual means to one or two in general (though that's okay with most). And many women (and men) are seeing attractions in living child-free. Though a lifetime of indoctrination prepares women for the job of reproduction, the spin is losing speed. Failure to pass the PFA would add more drag.

On background: As Heather Boushey and others have reiterated, the PFA reinforces the Equal Pay Act of 1963, requiring that all citizens be paid equally for equal work, regardless of gender; that they be allowed to document pay disparities in their workplace without retaliation; and that employers be held accountable when pay differences are based in unfair discrimination. These protections benefit all workers.

The effects? More money in the pockets of families that include working women (so men and children gain too). Passage would also spark a much-needed national dialogue about the way pay works in our culture. Of course not everyone welcomes such dialogue, since it could reveal the gross inequities operative along class and gender lines, and unravel the narrative of fairness and equal opportunity that wins support for the unequal pay system from the very ones who lose the most by it. But as the pay gap has expanded enormously between the rich and the rest of us recently, the discussion is now unavoidable.

It's no surprise that shortsighted employers (and their advocates, like Christine Hoff Sommers) object to having to pay their workers fairly, since that also involves paying half of them more. But that's not a reason to short half the citizenry. Paying out more will not depress business, it will grow it, since this money will be spent fast, going directly back into the economy, spurring more profits and more jobs. No surprise either that they look for other reasons to diss the legislation, since fairness and equality per se sound pretty reasonable to most voters.

But Sommers' recent reiteration of the old claim that the disparity in women's and men's full-time wages is caused not by active workplace discrimination but by women's "individual choices" to slow-track their careers around kids is wrong on two counts.

1. Discrimination is a factor: A recent AAUW report found that even childless women fresh out of school make 5% less than their male peers in the first year in equivalent jobs. Ten years later the differential among full-time male and female workers not attributable to personal choices or occupation choice increases to 12 percent.

Apparently employers anticipate that eventually most women will be mothers -- and less reliable workers therefore, so they view investment in them as less valuable. That of course becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when lower paid women then have very limited options for the good reliable childcare that would allow them to be consistent workers (nationally, about 15% of women workers have access to regulated childcare). In spite of these limitations, mothers' work-force attachment has been on the rise for decades, and it increases with education level (which links to both more money to spend on good care and an increased sense of investment in work).

2. Individual choice is a red herring: Society depends on women bearing children and then on somebody rearing them and going the extra miles to teach them the value of honesty, hard work and healthy living. The "it was your decision to have kids, so they're your problem" argument sidesteps the service that women and families provide by having children and caring so deeply how they grow. Parents don't have kids merely for their own pleasure (parents of teenagers, no snickering), they are also serving the commonwealth. We all depend on there being a next generation to pay into social security and to be good workers providing solid services to the community. So families deserve at least a fair wage for raising those workers.

Historically, keeping the focus on personal choice and not admitting the importance of women's home labor to the functioning of business was a means for getting the childrearing work done for cheap. Mothers are arguably the biggest underwriters of "surplus" value, but there was no profit in acknowledging that since it might lead to demands for change! But the time has come, because the field is transformed.

To the extent that women who don't choose to have kids face less of a wage penalty than women who have them, Sommers' argument is effectively a case against kids. While in the very short term that might look like a viable business strategy, it quickly loses power.

In days past women's essential contribution to the business world could be ignored because they were stuck making it. You could assume that women would bear and rear society's children for free because, if they had a sex life, they would procreate whether they wanted to or not. Those women who did work outside the home were hobbled by their lack of education (due to early childbearing) and by their need for flexible schedules to care for kids in the absence of any national care system. Women workers operated in a discriminatory, artificially constrained labor pool (all of the jobs open to them were linked to what they were doing at home for free -- teacher, nurse, cook, cleaner, sex worker) and faced lots of competition (all the other constrained women) within those few trades. So their wages were low. The fact that their jobs were done for free at home contributed to the general view that the work was not worth much.

But birth control transformed the paradigm, at the same moment that market demand for unskilled workers plummeted. Women with access to contraception don't have to have children (a factor behind recent movements to deny access to birth control and abortion -- a direct path to unskilled an populace and economic collapse). But if they do want families, they can now get their educations first, can limit the size of those families, and are no longer as confined to the old job set. As a result: women who used to have many kids now have a few or none; educated women can better educate their fewer kids; and both mothers and later their kids can join the educated workforce, growing the 21st-century economy.

Perhaps most revolutionary: Women have begun to trickle up into policy-making roles themselves, for the first time in history giving women a say in the shaping of a nation's rules and priorities.

The transformation has been gradual and progress slow, however, because our nation's lack of a family-support infrastructure, based in the old paradigm, still holds women back with the familiar dirty laundry list of inequities (in addition to unfair pay, there are job ghettos, inadequate childcare and sick leave, limited career tracks, and more). Circularly, because the family support infrastructure hasn't changed, women haven't been able to move in sufficient numbers into positions where they could change it. Until now, when the PFA, a first step toward an equal working field, is finally on the table.

Rejection of the PFA is not just continuation of the status quo; it would provide women with more evidence that mothers' work is not respected and more reason not to do that work, adding to the downward pressure already being exerted on the rate by the recession.

Internationally the effect of family-unfriendly work environments for women, as in Italy, Japan, and Germany, has been to depress the birthrate. Women may like kids well enough in abstract, but when the choice is between having a family in a unsupportive context with limited employment options and enormous costs in time and money, and having a satisfying career, with extra resources for travel and an upscale lifestyle, many women choose the career or a much smaller family.

In the US, the total fertility rate has stayed relatively high over the years (it's currently roughly at replacement at 2.04 kids / woman compared to Italy's 1.23, German's 1.38 and Japan's 1.27), in part because women have felt that they do have some flexibility and support (immigration also plays a role in keeping the rate up). But the recession is changing that, at the very time when the population of older folks in need of a vibrant force of younger workers to supply them with services as they retire is, shall we say, booming.

Passage of the PFA, on the other hand, would have spiraling positive effects on both fertility and education. It would counter the negative recessionary effects on fertility by putting more money in families' pockets. At the same time, equitably paid women could afford better childcare (instead of the bad, often unreliable care so many have to settle for now), leading to more school-ready kindergarteners and the better-educated workforce employers will need in the decades to come. Moms with good, reliable childcare could work more consistently as a group, quelling the anxieties of employers over their investment in women workers. Increased demand for good care would create many good, well-paid jobs, and further the economic expansion. Then having kids wouldn't seem like the hardship it is for so many today, ensuring a fertile American future.

Of course there are positives to a falling fertility rate, since overcrowding is a global environmental problem. But since a lower birthrate also brings big social and economic stresses, some judicious investment in future generations seems crucial.

Equal pay for equal work benefits everybody. Though the Paycheck Fairness Act will not resolve all the issues surrounding women's dual work roles in our culture, it is a necessary step in that direction. Paying women inequitably undermines the very business community its advocates seek to defend.

This piece first appeared on RH Reality Check.

Elizabeth Gregory teaches at the University of Houston and is the author of Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood (Basic Books). She blogs at