Tuesday, September 20, 2005

I should be sleeping but instead I'm going to semi-coherently rant at you.

Today's NYT has an article on Ivy-league women who are increasingly saying that when they have children they will either leave the workforce or do part-time work. The article notes that this is a change from the previous generation:

What seems new is that while many of their mothers expected to have hard-charging careers, then scaled back their professional plans only after having children, the women of this generation expect their careers to take second place to child rearing.

So, basically, women are "realizing" that "you can't have both" and scaling back their plans accordingly. Now, if a woman chooses to stay home with her children, that's a perfectly legitimate choice. Certainly (as noted in previous posts about the Folbre book and caring labor), the work that she's doing (and it is work) is important to society. But, I really don't like the way that this article treats this subject.

First, this sort of "choice" really only applies for class-privileged women. The fact that they are making the choice to stay home with their kids is dependent on the idea that they're going to marry rich husbands (which will probably happen for most of them). Most women don't really have the option that they have.

Second, there's an assumption that a parent at home is the best way to raise children. I'm not saying that it's a "bad" way to raise children, but there should be something said about the benefits of interaction with other children. Honestly, I'm not aware of all of the research on this topic, but I seriously doubt that there's a clear consensus that mom-at-home is best for kids.

Third, and kind of the biggest issue for me: this article doesn't really look at this concept of "choice." Yes, it kind of looks at the idea that historically women have done the childcare work. But why is this a decision that women and not men have to deal with? Are women "naturally" wanting to stay at home? Are these choices made in a vacuum? Well, it says that many of the young women were influenced by their mothers... Are they socialized this way? Does it matter? I guess this wasn't the point of the article... but I wish it were.

I really like this quote from Dr. Laura Wexler, professor of American studies and women's and gender studies, and I wish they would have more fully taken up this issue:

"They are still thinking of this as a private issue; they're accepting it," said Laura Wexler, a professor of American studies and women's and gender studies at Yale. "Women have been given full-time working career opportunities and encouragement with no social changes to support it.

"I really believed 25 years ago," Dr. Wexler added, "that this would be solved by now."

They (and we) still think of this as a private issue. Each woman (and man) makes their own decision about work/family issues. But what we don't see is that it's not private! It's actually very, very social. It's based on assumptions about men and women and public vs. private spheres and ideas about productive labor vs. caring labor, etc. But those are so much a part of the underlying ideology of our society that we don't even consider them.

The other part of Wexler's comment, that we allowed women to enter the workforce but didn't change the workforce or society at all is, I think, an important one. Yes, women can enter the workplace, but it is a workplace that is built around a male ideal worker. Women that are successful in the terms of this masculinized environment are often the ones who conform to the masculine ideal. They either don't have children or don't take time off for them, they act in "masculine" ways in terms of leadership styles (but they must walk a fine line between being perceived as too masculine and too feminine... maybe I'll write a post about this later, it's interesting).

How could the workplace be made more accepting of women? I was going to write accommodating, but why should the workplace accommodate women? That's like saying, "ok, this is still a masculine place, but we'll carve out the women's section.. here ya go!" The workplace should be entirely restructured and our ideas about workers should be fundamentally changed.

But, short of that...

  • we could allow part time work that is paid at the same rate as full time work, that is not seen as not being properly devoted to the company and that comes with prorated benefits
  • we could come up with some sort of nationalized system of childcare
  • we could rethink our ideas about productivity in the workplace. Is face time the most important thing, or could you argue that someone who does just as good a job in less time is in fact more productive?
  • Dude, there are so many more things that I'm going to stop listing them now.

In short... this article annoyed me. There's is absolutely nothing wrong with staying out of the official workforce, or leaving it temporarily to raise kids. It's not being lazy, it's not being weak, it's doing important work. And we should totally value it more. I just wish that we could get to a point in our society where it's a choice that everyone has. That women don't feel pressure to choose that path in order to seem like a good woman/mother and that men feel free to choose that path without being labeled as "feminine" or a "wimp" or as demasculinized (see, and the fact that we as a society think that about men shows the extent to which man=worker in our collective consciousness. One Harvard guy in an American Family class said of women staying at home: "I think that's sexy." Well, of course you do, because that's, like, the most feminine thing a woman can do, and to be "supporting" her is the most quintessentially masculine thing you can do, at least according to our society. Very sexy, I'd say... I wonder if porn where women are submissive is more popular than where women are dominant... I'd bet it is.)

Isn't it funny that we as a culture tend to think that having a mother at home is a very Good Thing for, um, white middle class women? But when it comes to women of color or poor women, our first impulse is to get them into the paid workforce and away from home, where they were probably sitting around being lazy anyway. Hmmm...

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