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"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

Summary Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum

Participants: Isabelle Barker (Political Science), Laura Blankenship (Information Services), Vanessa Christman (Office of Intercultural Affairs), Anne Dalke (English, Gender & Sexuality), Marissa Golden (Political Science), Jane Hedley (English), Michael Pfeiffer (Social Work), Arielle Schechter ('09 Sociology), Sandy Schram (Social Work), Julie Wise ('07).

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 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 economic reasons--has adopted many "family-friendly policies." There are a constellation of these policies available, including paid leave, flextime and telecommuting. They are used by the government to ensure low turnover, reduced absenteeism, reduced recruiting costs, reduced safety risks--in short, to create a more stable and happier workforce overall. And yet, "at the top, women start to disappear."

Finding problematic Friedan's notion of "feminism as self-actualization" (which resurfaced last November 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. (Human capital is defined as "the knowledge, skills and reasoning abilities possessed by a workforce.") If women are not working outside the home, society can't reap those benefits. Marissa acknowledged that work, of course, "is not all it's cracked up to be." She also noted that a higher percentage of black than white women are in the workforce, and with less angst. Part of the long, vexed history of being black in this country has involved defining a "good mother" as someone whose work contributes to the family's financial resources.

But must we measure human capital in terms of economic productivity? Martha Nussbaum's "capabilities approach" was discussed; it "values care" more than the human capital approach does, and encourages us to be more compassionate. According to the "capabilities approach," "women lose out, if they don't get to work." In contrast, according to the "human capital" approach, "society loses out, if women don't get to contribute." There was considerable discussion of the viability of this notion of "human capital" as a measurement of whether policies are working. But given the way society is now organized, any other approach will continue to further marginalize what can't be measured. "This is an economic definition," Although there are other values, reflected (for instance) in a balance of interpersonal relations and financial independence, these are located in the home. Marissa's work has focused on the workplace. 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 should be able to contribute their talents to the social order, without huge costs. From the institution of family-friendly policies, we have learned that certain societal structures can make it easier for women to work. Measured in terms of effects on family life, 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. The interviews indicate that family-friendly policies make a huge difference in allaying a sense of work-family conflict. The women Marissa interviewed who were working part-time or telecommuting one day/week were very enthusiastic about their arrangements, which cut down on commute time, and let them be home for repairs, doctor appointments, etc. All the "household production" second shift tasks could be accomplished during working hours, thus freeing up the weekend for family time.

Working part-time is a common trend: 1/2 of the women interviewed put in 4-day 32-hour work weeks. 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 a child while 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.

In the area of child well-being, therefore, the "policies don't go far enough." 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. Under the family medical leave act, women can also 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 after giving birth.) Using flextime, which lets employees stagger their hours to fit their lifestyle schedule (as long as they are in the office during the "core hours" of 10 a.m.-2 p.m.), two parents will often both "flex": one goes into work early, the other one stays late. This minimizes the number of hours their children spend in daycare, but is not particularly good for over-all family well-being, since it means that spouses seldom see one another.

But, it was asked, what are our social conceptions of child well-being, and where do they come from? "One's heart goes out" to these kids who are missing out of home life, who ask, plaintively, "Why can't I be a walker?" If the school day were adjusted to the same number of hours as the workday, "there would be no mother-guilt." (Comparison 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 schedules and lifestyles they take as reference for their own. But what about parents' perceptions? We probably can't ever shed our deeply held instincts about what constitutes child well-being (which seem grounded in a nostalgia for what life was like when "all the moms stayed at home"). Yet, according to the interviews reported by Ellen Galinsky in Ask the Children: What America's Children Really Think About Working Parents, most children were not unhappy with their parents' work arrangements.

The important suggestion was also made that we need to address an underlying assumption that children do not belong to the whole society. (Will the recommendations upcoming from the BMC Advisory Committee for Work-Family Balance be resisted by faculty members who don't have families to care for?) As Janet C. Gornick and Marcia K. Meyers argue in Families That Work: Policies for Reconciling Parenthood and Employment, the childless couple is not exploited by those who do have children. Nancy Fraser argues that, until we assume that everybody has family obligations, we will just systematically marginize women with children.

Yet 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 we need to be "investing in the current crop"? In fact, current family-friendly policies have proved remarkably ineffective in the realm of gender-equity issues. Although these policies were designed to accomodate families in general, rather than women in particular, it is overwhelmingly women who take advantage of them (and the women Marissa interviewed were full of praise for the federal support they received). (According to one national study, 80% of the part-time workers in the federal government are women). Family-friendly policies enable women to fulfill their second shift responsibilities, but don't intervene to lessen their responsibility for those tasks--which perpetuates gender inequity at home. Some women used the policies to help spouses advance their careers. There need to be incentives for men to use these policies.

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 their work/family balance. They have to "tread water" professionally to get that balance. This, then, 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 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.

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 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." Perhaps the revolution will start when moms "refuse to let the football team's schedule drive their lives" (i.e. their own kids' bus schedules).

But we also acknowledged the "elephant in the room": the bigger, harder question of why we work so much. Why do we think that 80-hour work weeks are necessary? For whom are they necessary? There is a "political economy piece" to this picture, the matter of "billable hours," of the top pay pay associated with high 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.

But (it was asked) are we really working all that much? 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."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? One reason why we all "work" so much may be that we are used to our time being organized, and "being social."

One reason the solution to the work/family balance continues to elude us is that the problem is very complex. Women have to develop their capabilities, including the capacity to care for others, and social welfare policies don't have this at their core. "Nuts and bolts" have to be altered. All family members have to contribute to household work (as happens, for instance, in some intentional communities). But it might be more economical, in the home as in the workplace, to have staff. Some of the work we do could be contracted out. 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? Might we lower our housekeeping standards? Might we also ask ourselves just what we are doing? We might re-think, for instance, both the ideas of "having it all" and that it "all has to get done." And yet, and yet--

if, in a two-working-parent-home, "no one sends the Christmas cards"--isn't that valuable work which is not getting done?

The conversation is invited to continue in the on-line forum, and will resume in person, 2:30-4 p.m., Friday, March 17, 2006,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.

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