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the motherhood papers

The least worst choice

page two

The motherhood factor

Belkin’s article -- and other recent reports in the popular media (2) -- might have us convinced there is indeed an Alarming National Trend of educated, middle-class mothers abandoning professional careers to take over the messy business of raising children at home. In reality, the probability a mother will participate in the paid labor force increases with her level of education -- over 78 percent of mothers with a graduate or professional degree are in the paid workforce, and they are three times as likely to work full-time as to work part-time. So if the fundamental question about the future of women’s leadership is “What’s become of our best and brightest young women?,” it appears most of them are at the office, whether they happen to have had a baby or not.(3)

However, as Joan Williams notes in her book Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What To Do About It, having all the right talent and training to excel in a career may not be enough to bring mothers into the mainstream of professional achievement. Success in today’s workplace depends on an employee’s capacity to meet her employer’s need for labor on demand -- meaning that the most valued workers are those who can work long hours any day of the week, at any time of day or night, without risk of interruption from personal responsibilities outside the job.

For mothers -- who, by contemporary cultural standards, are still expected to take the lead in child rearing and homemaking -- conforming to the uncompromising grind of the “ideal” worker is nearly impossible. According to Williams, mothers on the professional career track face “Three unattractive choices. They remain in a good job that keeps them away from home 10 to 12 hours a day, or they take a part-time [job] with depressed wages, few benefits and no advancement. Or they quit.”(4)

Women continue to enter elite professions at a growing rate; a recent study on transitions in the U.S. workforce found that women are now more likely than men to work at “professional or managerial” occupations.(5) But only a fraction of these women are reaching the upper ranks -- partly due to garden-variety gender discrimination, but they may also run into a barrier William’s describes as “the maternal wall”. Williams and other scholars who study work-life conflict are adamant that paid work and motherhood are not inherently incompatible, and argue that cultural attitudes about women, work and family have generated workplace practices that consistently marginalize mothers and other workers with normal caregiving obligations.(6)

Cultural resistance to mothers remaining in the paid workforce is less strident today than it was in the 1970s and ‘80s, but it hasn’t disappeared. A 2002 survey of wage and salaried workers found that two out of every five male employees -- and almost as many female employees -- agreed with the statement “men should earn the money and women should stay at home minding the house and children.” (In 1977, only 26 percent of men felt it was appropriate for women to work outside the home).

The same study found that women in dual-earners couples with children were considerably more likely than women in dual-earner couples without children to feel that mom should handle the care work while dad manages the money work (48 percent versus 34 percent). The authors duly noted that “the challenge or anticipated challenge of raising children apparently induces a change of attitude, if not employment behavior, in some people.”(7)

“It is really about work.”

As one of the Ivy League educated mothers Belkin interviewed for her Opt Out Revolution story observes, “The exodus of professional women from the workplace isn’t really about motherhood at all. It is really about work.” Several other women profiled in Belkin’s article openly admitted their departure from the workforce was precipitated by an employer’s refusal to negotiate a more family-friendly schedule. Even for women contemplating an exit from less prestigious jobs, the inexorable pull of maternal love may only play a small role in the decision to leave the workforce.

As Americans advance into the 21st century, access to new technology lets us work smarter -- but we are also working harder. Despite a consistent preference among employed adults for shorter working hours -- most would like to spend around 35 hours a week on the job(8) -- hours of work continue to increase in the U.S. as companies trim down staffing (and payroll costs) in order to survive today's economic conditions. Dual-earner couples with children under 18 worked an average of 91 hours a week in 2002, up from 81 hours a week in 1977. Fathers in dual-earner couples spend an average of 51 hours a week of paid and unpaid time on work related to their jobs, and mothers’ weekly hours of job-related work increased from 38 in 1977 to 43 in 2002.(9)

Not surprisingly, levels of stress from work/life conflict are also on the rise. Employees with families report significantly higher levels of interference between their jobs and family lives than they did 25 years ago (45 percent in 2002 versus 34 percent in 1977), and men with families report higher levels of interference between their jobs and their family lives than women. (10)

It’s not only moms and dads who are feeling the pain of the American way of work. A September 2003 report from The Conference Board, an international organization tracking corporate and employment issues, found that less than half of all U.S. workers are happy with their jobs. Employees reported the least satisfaction with their employer’s promotion policy and bonus plan. But only one out of every three workers was satisfied with their company’s plans for health care coverage, pensions, flexible time or family leave.

While all groups of workers reported lower levels of job satisfaction in 2003 than they had previous years, the steepest decline occurred for those between the ages of 35 and 44 -- job satisfaction for this group slipped from 61 percent in 1995 to 47 percent in 2003.(11) It may not be entirely coincidental that workers in this age range tend to be in the middle of their most active parenting years -- and this is especially true for professional women, who are increasingly likely to delay child-bearing until their early or mid-30s.(12)

Workers employed by businesses with more supportive work/life practices and cultures are more likely to be satisfied with their jobs and life in general, and express higher levels of commitment to their employers. However, the 2002 National Study of the Changing Workforce found that employer’s progress in adopting family-friendly practices and attitudes has been steady over the last two decades, but slow. With the exception of additional services and programs to help workers balance their workload with responsibilities for elder care, the study found there has not been a significant increase in other types of employer-implemented programs to reduce work/family conflict in the last decade. (13)

Even if work-life supports on the job are gradually improving, a recent news report in USA Today highlighted several new industry studies suggesting nearly one-third of U.S. companies are downsizing their family-friendly programs in response to high levels of unemployment. As the pressure to retain talent recedes, employers are scaling back options for telecommuting, flexible schedules and job sharing. According to the article, a group of industry experts concluded that, “with 9 million people out of work, companies no longer need to offer varied benefits to attract and retain workers.” (14)

As work hours escalate and the number of family-friendly programs employers offer remain stagnant or decline, employed mothers often find themselves in an untenable situation. For married couples, men’s commitment to longer hours of paid work -- and their limited contribution to carework at home(15) -- is often justified by their higher earnings.(16) But something’s got to give, and it’s usually mom – her time, long term economic security, general well-being, and aspirations for getting ahead on the job are all up for grabs in the dispiriting shuffle of priorities called “balancing” work and family.

Cutting back to a part-time schedule may seem like an ideal solution for easing work/life stress in families who can still make ends meet with one or both wage-earners working less than full-time. A 2000 survey by the Alfred C. Sloan Center at the University of Chicago found that nearly two-thirds of mothers who worked full-time would have preferred to work part-time, and one-half of all mothers who were out of the paid labor force would have preferred part-time paid employment to staying at home full-time.(17) But the part-time option is not without a downside. In 2002, three out of every five employees who worked for organizations employing part-time workers reported that part-timers received less than pro rata pay and benefits compared to full-time employees in the same positions just because they work part-time.(18)

When it comes to managing the conflicting demands of work and family, affluent married mothers who can afford to hop on and off the career track at will have a definite advantage -- for most single-parent and dual-earner families, reducing or forgoing one parent’s wages in the interest of “putting family first” is not a realistic option. As author and career coach Elizabeth Wilcox emphasizes in her 2003 book The Mom Economy, women with post-graduate education and advanced professional skills have considerably more bargaining power when it comes to negotiating family-friendly work arrangements. However, she also notes that even the most qualified workers must be prepared to make substantial trade-offs in terms of wages, professional prestige and quality of assignments in order to land a good part-time or flexible time position.(19)

In other words: no matter what you bring to the table, if you want a good job with good pay and reasonable opportunities for advancement – and you also want time to have a fully developed family or personal life – you are pretty much out of luck. As Wilcox remarks, "I can't tell you how many women I come across who are so disgruntled with the state of the workforce and the existing inequalities that it leaves them in a state of paralysis."

the other big picture

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