Women rally for equal pay in Berlin. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Opinion writer

Happy Equal Pay Day!

This Tuesday brings us a divisive political holiday of sorts, representing how far past Dec. 31 women must work to earn as much as men did the previous calendar year. Each year the day is celebrated with indignant speeches, political pledges, confusing stats and plenty of eye-rolling from unsympathetic men (as well as some women) who think crybaby ladies should just get over their persecution complexes already.

The typical full-time, year-round working woman earns about 78 cents for each dollar her male counterpart brings home. As has been “debunked” time and again, though, this pay gap primarily reflects not deliberate, “Mad Men”-style discrimination but the choices women make: in occupations, hours worked, decisions to take time off to care for children and so on. If you adjust for these kinds of factors — education, tenure, workweek hours — the wage gap narrows substantially.

Yet this popular statistical exercise sort of misses the point.

As evidenced by myriad think pieces about “having it all” and “second shifts,” women remain quite unhappy with the choices and sacrifices they have to make, even if the very act of choosing them suggests these are the best alternatives available. Poll data show that lots of stay-at-home mothers fantasize about finding paid work and that in many ways women have become just as ambitious professionally as men. But for women, those career ambitions are more likely to get lost on the way to becoming actual career choices.

So the meaningful question is not to what extent do women’s choices explain their professional outcomes. Rather, it’s what causes women to make these unsatisfying choices in the first place. Why don’t women’s career trajectories match what they say they want?

Conscious, overt prejudice is relatively rare these days — for cultural, as well as legal reasons — yet other equally thorny obstacles, both internal and external, hold women back from better pay and positions.

By internal obstacles, I mean the reluctance to negotiate for raises or to put themselves forward for promotion, or other self-sabotaging behavior — what might be called the “Lean Out” explanation.

By external, I mean policies that make it more difficult for women, who are more likely to be primary caregivers, to reach their highest potential in the workplace, or to stay attached to the workforce at all. These are policies such as inflexible hours, an emphasis on unnecessary face time with the boss and a lack of paid maternity leave or access to high-quality, affordable child care. There are more subtle sources of discouragement, too, such as the way our tax code effectively penalizes secondary earners with a high marginal tax rate and forces much outsourced child care and housework to be paid with post-tax dollars.

While pundits, self-help writers and career coaches can try to give pep talks to women to address internal psychic barriers, these external barriers are probably easier to break down quickly — and the ones that employers and politicians have the most to gain from tackling.

There are huge economic and social costs, after all, from women’s thwarted ambitions. Women today are substantially more likely to go to college — and to then continue on to postgraduate study — than men, making it particularly wasteful for their training and skills to disproportionately lie fallow.

And the costs of turnover — for employers who do not provide workplace environments that enable women to stay attached to their jobs post-motherhood — are high. In a recent interview, Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations at Google, explained why offering generous maternity leave is in a company’s self-interest: “On the face of it, you’re losing two months of a worker’s productive time. But someone can pick up the slack. It more than pays for itself in not having to go recruit someone brand-new. The reality is: Most people don’t have that many babies.” Other research has likewise shown that family-friendly accommodations, such as flexible scheduling and telework, can also be good for the bottom line by improving worker productivity and reducing absenteeism.

Equal Pay Day is about numbers, but it’s not only about numbers. It’s about fairness and professional fulfillment, but it’s not only about these romantic goals. First and foremost, perhaps, it should be about finding ways to allocate our nation’s precious human capital to its most productive uses.