The Feminist Mistake: European-Style Labor Laws

It’s now been 50 years since Betty Friedan published the international bestseller, The Feminine Mystique. And like clockwork, some feminists are penning articles that encourage European-style work and family policies in an effort to help American women achieve parity. However, besides violating individual liberty and disrupting incentives, those policies may be holding European women back from true equality.

Stephanie Coontz’s “Why Gender Equality Stalled” examines female labor force participation rates in the United States. She comes to the conclusion that American women are working fewer hours than they used to.

Between 1994 and 2004, the percentage of Americans preferring the male breadwinner/female homemaker family model actually rose to 40 percent from 34 percent. Between 1997 and 2007, the number of full-time working mothers who said they would prefer to work part time increased to 60 percent from 48 percent. In 1997, a quarter of stay-at-home mothers said full-time work would be ideal. By 2007, only 16 percent of stay-at-home mothers wanted to work full time.

So if women working part time or not at all is an indication of gender inequality, the solution must be to get more women working and full-time, right?

To get more women working, Coontz proposes more European-style “family-friendly” labor laws. She’s “astonished” that “[i]n the past 20 years the United States has not passed any major federal initiative to help workers accommodate their family and work demands.” She wants to see a European-style “work-family reconciliation” act. She also wants guaranteed paid leave to new mothers.

But how effective are such laws at getting women to work full-time?

To prove that imitating Europe will get women working, Coontz claims that European women work more, citing an economic research paper by Cornell researchers showing that the US has fallen to 17th place, beaten out by many European countries, in female employment levels.

What she leaves out may be more germane to an equality discussion than what she cites. Other studies show Europe actually has lower female labor participation rates than North America. The paper finds that women’s labor participation levels are higher in Europe because more women work part time there than in the US.

So how does Europe promote part-time work? Coontz tells us: “A 1997 European Union directive prohibits employers from paying part-time workers lower hourly rates than full-time workers, excluding them from pension plans or limiting paid leaves to full-time workers.”

A part-time worker is generally less likely to be paid and promoted like a full-time worker. Indeed, the paper Coontz quotes states that US women are more likely than women in other countries to have full-time jobs and to work as managers or professionals.

Obviously, gender equality is more than just working. It also includes getting raises and promotions and equal pay.

How interesting. If your goal is gender equality, why would you support policies that encourage part-time and not full-time work for women? It’s not sexism, but reality, that dictates that it’s difficult to ascend to a management or white-collar role when you only put in 20 hours per week.

Regulation favoring part-time work doesn’t just hurt women.  A study by the European Central Bank found that “Europe’s per capita GDP is around 65% that of the United States and the main reason for this gap is the relatively low labour utilisation in European countries.”

The biggest hurdle to equality in pay and promotions for women is the fact that as soon as they become mothers, women don’t want to work as many hours as men do. As European economies so clearly show, no social engineering will change that.

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