Some thoughts on "choice"

I'm currently working on a scholarly piece in which I challenge the way "choice" is used in a lot of feminist writing as our go-to word for reproductive decision making.  I am passionately in favor of reproductive justice, but I don't call myself "pro-choice" anymore, in part because I find "choice" to be a sort of shopping term, suggesting ease and convenience, and in part because "choice" is very individualizing. 

What did you choose?  Just make a choice!  Well, it didn't turn out well, but that was your choice.  These are ways that we put decision making entirely in the lap of a single person, implying or stating that they are entirely responsible, and entirely to blame.  And rarely (ever?) is a major decision so completely individual. 

Tonight I went to an event about women and business that started with a video.  In this video, an unnamed white guy (an economist, I think) said that the gender-based pay gap is a myth.  Yes, yes, statistics show that white women make 77% of what white men make, but this, the economist said, isn't based on sexism.  It's based on women's choices.  They choose to major in things that don't pay as well--like education rather than engineering.  Then they choose to have kids, and they choose to take time away from work.  These choices are responsible for the pay gap, not gender.  Hey, ladies:  make better choices, and you'll make more money!

If I were showing this video in a class, I might ask the students to tell me some things that are problematic about this economist's presentation.  Here's what my students might say:

  • Why do you think that women major in education and men major in engineering?  Could this be linked to the stereotypes that affect how math and science are taught and marketed in middle school and high school?  Boys who score moderately well in math are encouraged to consider engineering.  Girls have to score significantly higher to be encouraged to consider that field.
  • And should we maybe find it a tiny bit problematic that education is one of our low paying careers?
  • Women may be the ones actually pushing the babies out of their vaginas, but very often in families there's more than one adult.  So we might just as accurately say that men choose to have kids.  Why, then, do men's choices to become fathers not have the same effects on their careers?
  • We should have a look at the "choices" mothers make.  Would they like to take some time off work and return?  Would they like to work but recognize that they don't make enough money to pay for preschool?  Would they make different choices if different choices were available?
  • The same set of questions should be asked about men:  what might it mean if more choices were available for folks who are fathers?
  • Finally, I think my students might point out that his information isn't accurate.  A recent AAUW study showed that women who are majoring in the same thing as their male classmates make 81% of what their male classmates make a year after graduation.  So "choice" doesn't really explain the pay gap.
Even though it's incredibly important that individuals have the right to make decisions about their lives, to suggest that "choice" is somehow the explanation of things that are wrong with the world, or to suggest that "choice" alone will solve the problems, is to significantly diminish complex lived experiences.  We're all living our lives in communities, in cultures, in institutions and systems that help to determine the value of who we are and what we do.


starrlife said...

I just had a conversation on another blog about Intellectualism and how it pervades American culture- as though success in academics is the sum total of life success and that is directly related to IQ values (and also impacts/intersects with disabilism and our children's perceived position in society). Oh and results in higher paying jobs? Not so much since there is a cross current around value of traditionally viewed "women's jobs", ie SW, nursing, non-college level teaching. And then there is another cross current that values the "cold" "male" "rational" school courses over the literacy focused classes,ie math and science. Hmmm.... thinking....
Choices- I know that I made a deliberate choice to pick Social Work- a strongly community/people based, woman oriented profession over psychology (which I actually consider a pseudo-science ironically considering my field of work) which is primarily research and testing oriented (dominated by males) knowing that I would never get rich doing it but believing it is meaningful work.
Thanks for the space to wax earnest :)

Shannon Drury said...

How could I love your blog more? Posts like this one....!

Alison said...

I appreciate the earnestness, starrlife. I, too, chose a field that emphasized the things I value. I could have gotten an MBA, but I really LOVE my job.

And thanks for your affection, Shannon!

Anonymous said...

What a full circle morning my blog reader is creating! First I read Shannon Drury's post from yesterday and pulled this quote, "If you think that all of your decisions in life are your own, that you “choose your choice,” then you fail to question the systems in place that perpetuate oppression." Because YES.

And then this from you, "These are ways that we put decision making entirely in the lap of a single person, implying or stating that they are entirely responsible, and entirely to blame."

And basically my head exploded with amazingness and shouts of solidarity and the sincere desire that EVERYONE start to understand how choices aren't made in a vacuum, free from the circumstances of the life of the chooser.

Alison said...

Head exploding with amazingness is definitely what I'm going for--right on!

Tawanda Bee said...

Oh you just rattled my cage! I am in a profession that is dominated by lawyers and courtrooms... Entities that take away all of your choices! And because I am not a lawyer, my credentials get questioned all of the time. Let me add that I have more experience and training in mediation than most lawyers! (expletive deleted)

Mediation is about coming to the table to make your own choices... So lawyers and judges do not make them for you. It is about creating your own solutions...your own future. And the sad thing is, most people do not even knownthey have the choice to make their own choices! Is that a grammatically proper sentence?

It is the most frustrating, exhilarating thing to be in this place. I get to tell people that the decision is theirs. "you get to choose, no matter whatnyourmlawyer tells you. This is YOUR DIVORCE!"

Thanks for putting this thing that I live with in context. I am sooo passionate about my work... And I get frustrated. Both are true.

Meriah said...

Brilliant. Just...brilliant!! *love* this

Quiche said...

This is a great topic!

In my research for my recent research paper, "Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling", I found several interesting in-depth studies, besides the Dept. of Labor statistics that prove, just as you suggested, that gender discrimination is the problem, not women's "choices".

A Cornell University study showed that employers are less likely to hire mothers- the "Motherhood Penalty" exists.

One study focused on the idea that some employers have that women with children are less productive. The study found that women were quite the opposite, and quite often over-compensating in performance and productivity because they felt they were negatively stereotyped, held to a higher standard, and wanted to avoid sanctions by their employers. While women who take time off for maternity leave, take part-time positions, or stay at home are perceived in a negative light, women with children who work full-time and put their children in day care are often seen as bad mothers.

The most damning of the "women's choices at fault" for gender wage gap myth was a study of transgender people who when they transitioned from male to female had their pay reduced 1/3 post-surgery, but those transitioning from female to male increased slightly.

Hey guys, if you choose to be a woman, you'll make less money.

Even in jobs that have been traditionally and are still dominated by women, such as nursing, male nurses make more money, compared to women nurses who have the same qualifications, experience, position, time on the job, hours worked.

Likewise, some 40% of women are the primary bread winners in their families. The gender wage gap has a significant impact on everyone in society, certainly the children.

I'd be happy to share my findings (: