MMO: According to the "Big Boys," the only barriers to women's full equality are the ones we create ourselves. Who are the Big Boys, and what are their favored strategies for protecting the status quo?
Ellen Bravo: The Big Boys are what I call the powers-that-be -- those who control wealth and power in our country, and their spokespeople. They profit from our labor, set the conditions under which we work, create or greatly influence public policy. In addition to running the show, the Big Boys also control its description. By their reckoning, the status quo isn't a particular system that serves their interest. It's inevitable and beneficial to all. Because they're in charge, they get to tell the story of what's happening in the world -- what's working, what the problems are, what solutions are needed. Anyone can put forward opposing views. But the Big Boys' version is the one we hear most often.
I came up with this shorthand to describe how the Big Boys operate. They:
Minimize -- what problem? ("Women have it made.")
Trivialize -- that's a problem? ("Feminism means ugly women will sue to get a man.")
Patronize -- you don't understand the needs of business. ("You think you can socially engineer behavior.")
Demonize -- you're the problem ("Women shouldn't have kids if they can't afford to raise them.")
Catastrophize -- your solution will cause greater problems for the very ones you want to help ("These laws you want to pass will lead to discrimination against women. You'll drive business out and cause people to lose their jobs.")
Compartmentalize -- if you get what you want, it will hurt some other group ("Why should non-parents bear the burden of mothers taking off to deal with their kids?")
In general, the Big Boys deny there is a problem -- and if there is, they blame it on women's deficiencies or choices. The only thing they say we need to change is ourselves. This conveniently takes the heat off the root of the problem.
MMO: The Big Boys and their minions argue that women workers are paid less and are underrepresented in higher status jobs because they make different choices about work and family than men do. Although research findings repeatedly challenge that worldview, this particular narrative seems to be practically unkillable. For budding grass-roots activists, what are the most important steps we can take to dispel the myth that women's inequality is self-selected?
Ellen Bravo: We need to shine a light on the real problems -- the lack of options that exist for women and men to be whole people who can integrate work and personal lives, not to mention the fact that the lowest-paid jobs are the LEAST flexible. Even those who aren't parents have parents or partners or other loved ones and interests beyond work, and need time and flexibility. Steps include the many ways women activists are creating their own media and trying to utilize mainstream media -- writing op eds and letters telling the truth of their own lives, and creating newsworthy events that get covered. The most effective way to do that is to build grassroots organizations with activities that are accessible even to those with little time and no money.
MMO: You explain why it's not enough to "raise the floor" and "shatter the glass ceiling" -- we need to change the way we organize and think about work in the United States, to "redesign the building from the ground up." What will that look like, and where do we begin?
Ellen Bravo: The good news is that we know what the redesigned building looks like because all or parts of it exist already, in individual companies in this country and entire countries in much of the rest of the world. For parents, it means being able to share up to a year of paid leave and returning to work at reduced hours with no penalty in pay rates or benefits or advancement opportunities. After that year, the child can go to quality child care starting at 10 hours a week or so and gradually increasing but always within a reasonable amount -- the access to trained (and well-compensated) personnel and good social interaction would be a draw, especially combined with lots of time with parents at home. A full-time work week would be no more than 35 hours, and parents could arrange their hours to avoid rushed mornings or child care or school squeezes at the end of the day.
The costs for all these reforms (including universal health care) have been estimated at 1.5 percent of the Gross Domestic Product. That's a mere fifth of what the government is now spending on corporate handouts. We can easily afford it if we can create the political will.
Where to begin? By working as part of a network of diverse state coalitions for new minimum standards like paid sick days and paid family and medical leave.