Home | Calendar | About | Getting Involved | Groups | Initiatives | Bryn Mawr Home | Serendip Home

gender and sexuality home
Bryn Mawr Home Haverford Home

"Can Women Have It All?
And What Role does Public Policy Play?
A Study of Bryn Mawr Alumnae in the Federal Civil Service"

Marissa Golden

February 10, 2006

One in a series of discussions about Rethinking Parenting
Co-sponsored by the Center for Science in Society and the
Program in Gender and Sexuality at Bryn Mawr College

Marissa took as keynote for her talk the accomplishments of Betty Friedan, who died this past week. In The Feminine Mystique, Friedan argued that housekeeping was not fullfilling enough, that women needed to be engaged in the work of the wider world. Since Friedan published her book in 1963, there has been a lot of progress, but women's transition into the work in the public sphere has not been seamless. As Arlie Hochshild has shown, there are many "second-shift" responsibilities, and lots of work-family conflict. Marissa decided to focus her research on women employees of the federal civil service, which--largely for business reasons (to reduce absenteeism and create a more stable and happier workforce)--adopted many "family-friendly policies." And yet, "at the top, women start to disappear."

Finding problematic Friedan's notion of "feminism as self-actualization" (which recently resurfaced in a piece by Linda Hirshman on American's Stay-at Home Feminists, Marissa has developed a different argument for why women need to work: in order to increase human capital (which human capital being defined as "the knowledge, skills and reasoning abilities possessed by a workforce"). Simply put, society can't reap those benefits, if women are not working outside the home. Marissa acknowledged that feminists (like < a href=> Lisa Belkin) have discovered that "work is not all it's cracked up to be." She also noted that a higer percentage of black women are in the workforce, and with less angst than white women: part of their definition of a "good mother" includes increasing the family's financial resources, and there is a long history in this country of their doing so.

Two contrasting arguments were laid on the table--either "society loses out, if women don't get to contribute," or "women lose out, if they don't get to work." There was considerable discussion of the viability of "human capital" as a measurement of whether policies are working. Must we measure human capital in productivity? Martha Nussbaum's "capabilities approach," for instance, "values care" more than the human capital approach does; it encourages us to be more compassionate. But given the way society is now organized, such an approach will continue to further marginalize what can't be measured. "This is an economic definition," and there are other values, reflected (for instance) in a balance of interpersonal relations and financial independence, but these located in the home. The focus of Marissa's work has been in the workplace, and her claim is that the U.S. economy will perform better if women are more fully employed.

In Marissa's vision of a just society, people are able to contribute their talents to the social order, without huge costs. Family-friendly policies have been developed by businesses for economic reasons. And, from the business perspective, here is what has happened: we have learned that certain societal structures can make it easier for women to work. Measured in terms of effects, these policies have proved to

  • operate effectively as interventions in family conflict,
  • have uncertain effects on child well-being, and
  • (an important finding of Marissa's study) are not effective in contributing to gender equality.
Because her concern is with the "disappearance of women @ the top," Marissa's first random sample was Bryn Mawr alums, aged 30-55, who have children and work in the federal governnment. Then, following a procedure known as "snowballing," she interviewed friends of these alumnae, all professional women with advanced degrees and kids, who "start to disappear from the top echelons of government service. In work-family conflict, family-friendly policies make a huge difference. The women Marissa interviewed who were telecommuting (working from home one day/week, with childcare) or working part-time were very enthusiastic about their arrangements, which cut down on commute time, and let them be home for repairs, doctor appointments--all the "household production" second shift tasks could be accomplished, thus freeing up the weekend for the family. Under the family-friendly leave act, federal employees are allowed to take some of their (very generous) sick leave to care for a family member. In the area of child well-being, however, the "policies don't go far enough." Under the family medical leave act, women can take 4-6 months of paid leave (by using vacation and sick leave) after childbirth. (Compare this to Europe, where women automatically get twelve months leave.) Using flextime, which lets you stagger your hours to fit your lifestyle schedule (as long as you are in the office during the "core hours" of 10-2. Families "flex" to minimize the number of hours their children spend in daycare. It was not good for family well-being: spouses never saw one another, but the A fourth option was part-time, a common trend: 1/2 of the women interviewed put in a 4-day 32-hour work week. The report on telecommuting is more mixed. One condition here is that kids have to be in daycare; it is not viable to care for your child while you are working--so the kids are still spending long days in day care. A 9-3 work schedule would be ideal for child well-being, but most parents feel that they would "miss out on too much at the office," and that their work day would be "too compressed," so for most workers this is not an option. What are our social conceptions of child well-being? One's heart goes out to these kids who are missing out of home life, whho ask, plaintively, "Why can't I be a walker?" If the school day were adjusted to be more like the workday, there would be no mother-guilt. (comparision was made to arrangements in Denmark: where before-and after-school care is integrated into the school day). This is a "big cultural thing": kids compare their lives with those of other kids, whose arrangements they take as reference for their own. Although these policies were not designed to accomodate women, but families, it is overwhelming women who take advantage of them. There was an expression of "disillusionment with workplace culture," which sees workers as replaceable, and doesn't create practices which reflect a desire to create better workplaces. People-friendly policies (such as paid leave, flextime and telecommuting) are used to ensure low turnover, reduced recruiting costs, and reduced safety risks. The women Marissa interviewed were full of praise for the federal support they received. But the stability of the federal workforce is about to be challenged; they are "about to face a retirement wave," and so need talent. There has been a "thickening of government": many different ranks have too many people in them; lots of pruning is needed. less resources According to the interviews reported by Ellen Galinsky in Ask the Children most children were not unhappy. The suggestion was made that we need to address an underlying assumption that children do not belong to the whole society. As Gornick and Myers show, the childless couple is not exploited by those who do have children. A "family friendly," "gender fair" As Nancy Fraser argues, until we assume that everybody has family obligations, we will just systematically marginize women with children. But it is not obvious which family-friendly policies will promote gender equality. Is it the care-giver parity model? The universal care-giver model? What's the operative unit here? Does it need to be bigger than the family? What do you need to be investing in the current crop? When the Bryn Mawr President's Advisory Board on work-family policy makes its recommendation, there may be resistance from faculty of earlier generations, who didn't have family. The family-friendly policies are less effective in the realm of gender-equity issues. These policies are disproportionately used by women (according to one national study, 80% of the part-time workers in the federal government are women). There need to be incentives for men to use these policies. Some women used the policies to help spouses advance their careers. These policies enable women to fulfill their second shift responsibilities, but don't intervene to lessen their responsibility for those tasks--which perpetuates gender inequity @ home. Women universally put themselves on the mommy track: slowing their career advancement enables them to keep working, but at the cost of turning down promotions. What's significant here is that they did not encounter a glass ceiling, but "voluntarily" took themselves off the fast track in order to maintain a work family balance. They had to "tread water" to get that balance, though.

This is Marissa's "normative spin" on the data she has collected so far: women are languishing in mid-management, below the "policy making" grades in civil service. Family friendly policies are making a huge difference in the quality of their lives, but these women are not using those policies to advance their careers. They are "happy campers" with regard to the second shift and the elusive work/family balance, but their choices have unintended societal costs. Although they are staying in the workforce in an attentuated basis, the culture is not reaping the full benefit of their human capital.

And what about the question of child wellbeing? We probably can't ever shed our preconceptions of what constitutes child wellbeing (it seems grounded in a nostalgia for what life was like when "all the moms stayed at home"). Marissa said that her presentation had "three punch lines":

  • we need to change the behavior of men, of the workplace and of the educational system
  • the whole structure of the educational system assumes the availability of mothers; that the majority of them are working is "not part of the discourse." This is a complex system, a discourse, in which we are all reproducing, from the bottom up, a gender bias which colonizes any family friendly policy. We're all caught up in larger system which reinscribes bias in invidous ways. "Power will migrate." the discussion ended with calls for revolution: "don't let football team drive my life!" But the bigger, harder question is why we work so much. Why do we think that 80-hour work weeks are a necessity? An ethnographer who followed around a research scientist might ask how much time she actually spends doing science. How much do we conflate work and leisure activities? Some of the work we do could be contracted out. There is a "political economy piece" to this picture, the matter of "billable hours," and the pay associated with productivity. The fixed costs of living have skyrocketed, and many families in this country are caught in the "Two Parent Income Trap." There is no family wage: one adult cannot make enough to support a family. Society equates prowess and productivity w/ numbers of hours spent in the office. One reason why we all work so much may be that we are used to all time being organized, all time being social time. In The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work (1997), Arlie Hochshild shows that many people choose to spend long hours at the office because being at work is less stressful than being at home, where the "projects are eternal." We are also overlooking the satisfaction of having our capacities recognized. There are no child raising courses. The problem is very complex, and it persists. Women too have to develop their capabilities: We do not value the capacity to care Social welfare policies don't have this at their core Nuts and bolts have to to altered. All have to contribute to household work (as happens, for instance, in some intentional communities). It is more economical to have staff We have to reinvent the idea that it "all has to get done." There is an enormous amount of support work that has to get done, for which no one will be graded.How to change the behavior of men?Mightn't we lower our housekeeping standards? Are we asking ourselves what we are doing? There is a literature about contracting out Same sex couples, in which each partner is equally career oriented, no one sent Christmas cards. There is some valuable work which is not getting done.

    The conversation is invited to continue in the on-line forum, and will resume in person on Friday, March 17, 2006, from 2:30-4pm in Thomas Library Room 223, when the BMC President's Advisory Committee for Work-Family Balance will conduct a brainstorming session for all faculty, staff and students. Do women believe in "self-ownership" as much as men do? Are they free to choose their path? How can we set up the workplace for women to develop their abilities? Do these policies solve the problems? There is a constallation of policies available.

Home | Calendar | About | Getting Involved | Groups | Initiatives | Bryn Mawr Home | Serendip Home

Director: Liz McCormack -
emccorma@brynmawr.edu | Faculty Steering Committee | Secretary: Lisa Kolonay
© 1994- , by Center for Science in Society, Bryn Mawr College and Serendip

Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-May-2018 10:51:19 CDT