Friday, October 19, 2012

My Wife, Equality, and That Which Is Not Seen

NOTE: My wife in no way put me up to this post. Rumors that my busy travel schedule and an accidental trip down the Midtown Direct line to Mount Tabor have me in the doghouse are completely false. More seriously, these are my opinions, not hers, which should go without saying but often doesn't.

Economists, especially of the rightward-leaning variety, like to cite Frederic Bastiat's Parable of the Broken Window when they talk about the consequences of government spending, or how economic decision-making has invisible secondary effects, and lots of other things besides. (One of the nice things about parables, whether they come from Jesus or an economist, is that they can be applied pretty broadly.) This parable comes from an essay called, "That Which is Seen and That Which is Not Seen", and they show that a broken window, which some people might call an economic benefit because it forces the owner to spend for repairs, is actually a misallocation of resources because it diverts that spending away from a more productive channel. 

I'm now going to abuse that parable a little bit, and say that we most often observe the effect Bastiat is describing when it comes to well-meaning rules. So, here's where my wife comes in. She is "That Which Is Not Seen", the unnoticed victim of rules that are meant to protect women and in particular working mothers. In short, I believe that the rules and regulations meant to protect women in the workplace are in fact keeping her out of the workplace.

A bit of background. My wife, Kim Reed, is a very talented person who could be doing any number of things (check out her vastly more interesting blog if you want a sample) but has focused, career-wise, on product development. This is in essence the science of taking an idea from a designer or artist (or company bigshot, as the case may be) and figuring out how to get it made at commercial scale and at a cost the market will bear. She's done this for companies making curtain rods, dinnerware, watch bands and, most recently, high end jewelry. Kim felt like her job at Tiffany & Co. was a sign she had made it in New York, and that it would open up lots of options in her career. She felt that way when she got pregnant, even though she intended to return to work there after our son was born.

But she decided she wanted to take six months instead of three months, and Tiffany wasn't cool with that. They said they'd consider her for other roles when she was ready to come back, but somehow that hasn't worked out. My belief is that, in a company that is predominantly staffed by women of child-bearing age, they didn't want to set the "bad precedent" of allowing too much employee flexibility around maternity leave. And since the law says you are protected for 12 weeks, and then pretty much on your own, that makes 12 weeks the default, and woe be it if you feel like you need more time. 

Now, I don't begrudge Tiffany the right to make the best business decision for their company, and I suppose (although her reviews both there and everywhere else she's ever worked would make it seem unlikely) that they didn't consider her a particularly productive employee. But I do think that the laws that "protect" women treat them as a uniform group and define (and thus limit) what they can expect from a company. Twelve weeks is an arbitrary number, not some well-thought out limit on the needs of new mothers.

I wouldn't have thought much of what happened with Tiffany if it hadn't been for her subsequent experience in the job market. My wife has had a large number of interviews, and with a handful of companies has gone back multiple times, and left with the expectation of an offer. And a pattern has emerged. All of a sudden she stops hearing from the company, and either they completely ignore her (again, after multiple rounds of interviews taking significant chunks of her time) or give a non-answer as to why she is no longer being considered.

Here, I think, other rules that are meant to help women are actually hurting Kim. You are, as an employer, not allowed to discriminate against women with children. You aren't even allowed to ask about someone's family status or how it might effect their work. But you can't expect people not to think about it. What's more, once you hire someone, you risk an expensive and frustrating lawsuit if you let them go and there is a perception you might have done so because of their family issues. You might not be allowed to say any of this (and you're in it deep if you ever write it in an email or otherwise document it), but if you're hiring you can't help but think about it. And so I believe that a woman with a young child, who hasn't been working for a while, is now seen as a potential legal liability as much as a potential asset. And, if you decide not to take the chance, but can't articulate an approved reason to reject the person? Well, easier just to never call back and let the issue, as the said in Office Space, "work itself out naturally."

I normally try not to get into personal issues on this blog, but I think this is a great example of understanding how the mind works and how we react to incentives. The government, for understandable reasons, sets up rules that are meant to protect women in the workplace. But people don't necessarily respond to the intent of the law (which is to ensure women aren't treated worse because they have children) but rather to the effects of the law (which is to make it legally easier to deal with men or women without children). Women like Kim who have children have to behave within the strictures of the laws that have been created or else they are suspect, seen as a problem waiting to happen. 

I think that one of the greatest benefits to society in the last century has been the unlocking of women's potential to impact society for the better. We have, in essence, doubled our human capital. But a lot of what passes for "women's rights" is condescension that assumes all women want the same things or need the same protections. And I think, based on the evidence of Kim and many other women I've known, that if the genders competed on an entirely even playing field, us men are likely to get trounced.

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