March 20, 2009 in Opinion

Kathleen Parker: To help girls, help boys

Kathleen Parker
 

With a flick of his pen, President Barack Obama finally laid to rest Freud’s most famous question and iterated one of man’s hardest-won lessons: Women want what women want.

Thus, it came to pass that the president created the White House Council on Women and Girls to ensure that all Cabinet-level agencies consider how their policies affect women and families.

There’s little profit in criticizing a move to make life better for the fairer sex. Still, one does have to suppress a chortle as we pretend that the First Father’s rescue of damsels in distress is not an act of paternalistic magnanimity. Chivalrous, even.

Oh, well, irony is hardly a stranger to gender. Neither are exaggeration and myth. If I may …

First, the statistics cited by Obama as rationale for the council weren’t quite accurate, though they were, to borrow from Stephen Colbert, truthy. And surely the president can’t be ignorant of the fact that boys in this country are in far graver danger than girls in nearly every measurable way.

Where’s the White House Council on Men and Boys? OK, let men fend for themselves. But boys really do need our attention, not only for themselves, but for the girls who will be their wives (we hope) someday. We do still hope that boys and girls grow up to marry, don’t we? Preferably before procreating?

Certainly, the Obamas seem to. A model family, they undoubtedly want their girls to excel and, eventually, to marry equal partners. But boys won’t be equal to girls if we don’t focus some of our resources on their needs and stop advancing the false notion that girls are a special class of people deserving special treatment.

There isn’t space here to fully critique each statistic mentioned by the president, but here’s just one: Women still earn 78 cents for every dollar earned by men.

As has been often explained, apparently to deaf ears, this figure is derived by comparing the average median wage of all full-time working men and women without considering multiple variables, including the choices women and men make. A more accurate picture comes from a 2007 report prepared for the U.S. Department of Labor by the CONSAD Research Corp.

Although women do not lead as many Fortune 500 companies (only 3 percent, according to Obama), they account for 51 percent of all workers in the high-paying management, professional and related occupations, according to the study. Women outnumber men, for example, as financial managers, human resource managers, education administrators, medical and health services managers, and accountants and auditors.

Otherwise, wage differences can be explained by “observable differences in the attributes of men and women,” including, among many, the fact that a greater percentage of women than men take leave for childbirth and child care, which tends to lead to lower wages. Also, women may place more value on “family-friendly” workplace policies and prefer non-wage compensation, such as health insurance or flexibility.

The statistical analysis, which included these and other variables, produced an adjusted gender wage gap between 4.8 percent and 7.1 percent.

The gap shrinks to almost nothing when men and women of equal backgrounds and tenure are compared, according to another study of young, childless men and women.

While no one would argue that women shouldn’t be compensated as well as men for the same work, it isn’t quite accurate to suggest a widespread problem of wage discrimination. Or, as the Labor Department study warns against, to justify policy-level correctives.

Whatever imbalances remain should be self-correcting as women and men achieve educational parity, but that’s if boys get some help. Indeed, men and women reached educational parity with college graduation rates in 1982. Today, women receive 58 percent of bachelor’s degrees and represent half of graduates in medical and law school.

Boys, meanwhile, are the ones dropping out of school or being expelled. They’re the ones failing, abusing drugs and committing suicide. What kind of men do we expect them to become, assuming they survive?

As a father of two daughters, Obama wants to do the right thing by women. A noble purpose. But if he wants America’s girls to find proper mates, he might create a White House Council for Boys and, perhaps, Fathers.

Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her e-mail address is kparker@kparker.com.


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