Governmental Family Policy

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Governmental Family Policy

Marissa Chickara

The modern working woman is struggling to balance work and family. The Second Wave of feminism has pushed her into the workforce, promising its ideals of equality in wages and in the home. However, many women find themselves in a world that devalues their work in home and in the workplace. Our society has not yet caught up to the Third Wave of feminism, which attempts to break down the traditional gender roles our constructions of work and family are based on. Many are hoping that government intervention through work policies that reflect the demands of an egalitarian family will be able to propel men and women out of the "stalled revolution".

One must now address the question why the United States government is not following the lead of other industrialized nations if they are so supportive of "family values" and "moral values." Until there is a public outcry that can no longer be ignored, which is fast-approaching, the government can continue playing with words in order to avoid accountability. The problem exists with how these policies are categorized. The common term applied to such policies is "social benefits." This language alludes to the "social welfare state"-an ideal a liberal democracy like America does not strive to uphold. The American attitude for such concerns is usually along the lines of "you have your rights, now work it out for yourself."

However, it is crucial to break down the relation between these family-friendly policies and the word "benefits." Progressive policies do not predominantly "benefit" working mothers. Without such policies, women cannot pursue their right to earn a living in the same way a man could. Earning a living is not a "benefit," equal opportunity for employment is not a "benefit"- but a "right." In our capitalist culture, "the one right of paramount importance to all human beings" is the right to earn a living, and in accordance with the law, any obstruction to a fundamental right must be remedied by the government (Woolf, 101).

That may explain why the government is avoiding a proactive role, but another question must be addressed as to why our society is looking to the government for a solution to the modern gender dilemma. The government does not have a good track-record when it comes to representing the historically oppressed. The government has helped support the patriarchy that exists in our workforce today and still stands to benefit from it.
Why would the government attempt to break down our traditional "bread winner" society?

If anything, the government benefits the most from this construction. As long as the value of work relies on dedication and long hours, the United States will continue to have the hardest working labor force in the world. This is a bad situation for men, who are under pressure to maintain the "bread winner" title and miss out on quality time with their family. This is a bad situation for women- working mothers especially- who have to compete on the same level with men for less money, and still bear most of the burden of the "second shift."

But, this situation is by no means bad for the government, at least in their perspective. The less equality women achieve in the workforce, the poorer they are compared to men, and society can hold on to model of the "traditional" family a little while longer. The picture of women achieving their full potential in the workplace and independence from men is a scary one for the conservative forces in power. That would just lead to divorce, single mothers, delinquent children, homosexuality, and who knows what else.

If this is all true, then it becomes dismal that any party in the government will be willing to destruct this oppressive machine that had worked in its favor for so long. But, there has been a growing interest in United States for these work policies and a growing pressure to follow the path led by Western European countries.
Western Europe's social benefits that relieve the pressure on working families are a great example of how a former patriarchal society has attempted to right the wrongs- even if it was for completely the wrong reasons. Did even these governments intend to promote gender equality, or was it just another attempt to further capitalism? "I'd like to think that the reason why the boys are now so interested is that they've seen the light- the innate justice and good sense, etc- but in truth, the interest is far more to do with electoral strategy" (Bunting, 1).

The same strategy can be used here in the United States by the parties. "Work-life balance is now regarded as the political equivalent of unexplored Antarctica- virgin territory with huge potential" (Bunting, 1). If only John Kerry would have utilized this strategy. The majority of mothers voted for George W. Bush, proving the good looks of John Edwards were not enough to win the hearts of the female vote. "Politicians who talk about the work-life balance show some understanding of the aspirations of ordinary people" (Bunting, 1).

In the year 2000, the French government cut the standard workweek down to thirty-five hours, which applies to two-out-of three French workers. Americans may use this as an example of how our government should follow other industrialized nations in easing the burden of work and family for the modern worker. However, this effect was never the explicit intention of the French government when applying this policy. The goal of this policy was not promoting gender equality, but "lowering unemployment by spreading work around among more employees" (Woods, 2). Now, under pressure from international competition for jobs through globalization, many Western European countries are revising their workweek to return to the traditional forty hours.

This example shows that actions by the government are only taken when it suits their best interest, and capitalist whims can change on a dime. It a waste of time for people to sit back and wait for policies to be handed to them in order to correct the imbalance in their own personal lives. A more active role must be taken by individuals to demand policies that will finally foster the environment for women to have an equal right in earning a living.

In American society, "private patriarchy in families combines with public patriarchy in governments and economics to create a system of domination which subordinates women in the workplace and in the home" (Contemporary Women's Issues, 1). Some people may be hesitant to continue using the word "patriarchy," which reflected much of the frustration of Second Wave feminism. The fact is that a system of patriarchy does still exist in our nation today, especially in the workplace.

Our labor laws have not been revised since the 1930s, which says a lot about why women are finding it hard still. One look to who was the type of worker these standards were seeking to protect. Working women with children did not fit mold of the average worker in the 1930s, and they are still not able to fit into this rigid mold today.
"As capitalism and patriarchy interact in the development process, they shape gender relations inside as well as outside the household, contributing to the gender differentiation of labor globally." There is a new problem that the workplace must address, that they have so far gotten away with. "The issue is that there is a denial about the existence of gender inequality (Contemporary Women's Issues, 2).

There is even a deeper denial about what needs to be done about it. I remember watching John Kerry on television during the presidential campaign, answering questions from the audience. One woman asked him how he plans to address the issue of inequality in the workplace for women. I was surprised when he answered that his new health plan and his support for an increase in the minimum wage was how he will go about solving this problem.

This showed me that even a "Liberal from Massachusetts" was falling short of what dramatic changes need to be made. Sure, an increase in the minimum wage will put more money in women's pockets. This might even distract women long enough to allow them to forget that has nothing to do with the fact that they will still be earning less than men. It reminded me of how governments in Muslim countries make "changes" like allowing women to wear make-up in public, hoping that will please them enough that they will not ask for the right to vote.

This is especially true for the under-represented families in society. "The dominant paradigm of economic citizenship, a wage-earning father with financially dependant mother and children, excludes same-sex couples, and arguably, single-parent families. The heterosexual bias infiltrated policy constructions of the family" (Journal of Women's History, 2). Gay and lesbian families may reap the benefits if these policies were implemented, but how much do these policies actually address their particular arrangements. Policy makers discuss shortening the hours at work so "fathers" can spend more time at home and share the domestic burden with their "wives." No where in any formal language is there a reference to same-sex couples with children, even though they fall victim of the same gender constructions.

Even in a majority of same-sex couples, there is a designated "breadwinner" and a designated "domestic worker." Except unlike in heterosexual couples, these rules are not based on gender but on economic potential. The same tensions exist between the "breadwinner" and the "domestic worker" no matter what the sexual arrangements of a relationship may be.

While social policies can relieve this tension even in same-sex couples, it will not improve the standing of same-sex couples in society if it is done in the name of the "traditional family." If policies are implemented to improve the marital relations between a man and a woman, to give mothers and fathers more time with their children, or to free women from the shadow of being financially dependant on their husbands, they are truly not reflecting the faces of the modern American family.

This relates to the "philosophical opposition between 'heterosexual' and 'homosexual'," and more specifically, "the couple 'inside' and the couple 'outside'." Same-sex couples can benefit from family policies, even if they are still regarded "outside" of society's construction of the traditional American family. None of the studies I have found discuss how family polices will impact same-sex couples. This should matter, because same-sex couples should be able to evolve in their own respect, and not just by being absorbed into the evolution of the heterosexual couple.

It is hard to rely on government legislation to change society's norms. Even though a law was past decades ago allowing inter-racial marriage, the practice is still stigmatized today. Constructions of gender have existed long before constructions of race and can prove to be even harder to break down.
Even in Europe, where family policies have been put in place, pressure still exists for workers to continue to work long weeks, well beyond the national limit. Last year in Britain, "the number of men working more than forty-nine hours a week has broken the three million mark." This accounts for almost a quarter of the male workforce that are working beyond the limit entailed in the European Union directive. The pressure of men to work and maintain their "breadwinner" roles shows there is still much improvement to be made.

Most men are reluctant to work shorter hours. The reason is not necessarily that they do not want to work less or spend more time with their family. The underlying reason is that until women are able to achieve equality in wages in the workforce, men do not have much of a choice than to assume the role of the "breadwinner."

Also, it is hard for men to take advantage of family policies in a work culture that still regard men as the "breadwinners" and devalue time spent at home. A study conducted by Wake Forest University has shown that men who take time off for family matters are viewed negatively in the workplace, compared to women who take time off. This is due to the continuing expectation of women bearing the responsibility of the family, and men completely dedicated themselves to the workplace.

"Working fathers may have to choose between taking leave to care for family needs and being perceived negatively at work, or not taking care of family needs in order to avoid undue penalties at work." The study concluded that "in the same way that women should have the opportunity for involvement in the workplace, men should have opportunity for involvement in the family." A recommendation of the study is for employers to "create a culture in which it is acceptable for both men and women to equally participate in and benefit from family policies" (Walker, 1).

This study also does not reflect how family policies affect the parents in same-sex relationships. If it is "perceived negatively" for a father to take time off at to contribute to his traditional family, one can only imagine how the workplace would respond to a father using the same policy without a dependant wife at home. It would only make it harder for gay couples to utilize the policies if they are only acceptably applied to mothers

Also, is it really the employers that are creating this culture or the workers themselves? There are workers who enjoy their time spent at the office, and they contribute to a work culture of devotion that makes it hard for other workers to show less devotion. While Americans do work longer hours than their European counterparts, this can be explained, since "they are also more satisfied with many aspects of their jobs" (Arora, 1).

In a Gallup Poll, thirty-eight percent of Americans said they work more than forty-five hours a week, a full ten percent higher than the response from Britons. While European countries are known for their vacation time, fifty-two percent of Americans reported to be "completely satisfied" with the vacation time they receive- compared to only forty-nine percent of Britons. This shows that Americans may not be so willing to give up their time at work, since more than half a satisfied with their arrangements already (Arora, 2).

The most significant reason why Americans work longer hours than Europeans "could be that they're more likely to see greater potential reward" for their effort. Forty percent of Americans are "completely satisfied with opportunities for promotion in their jobs," compared to only twenty-five percent of Britons. This gives another reason to why Americans work long hours besides pressure from the employers. If employers are the ones to change the workplace culture in order for parents to take advantage of family policies, the only power they might have is to make promotions less attainable so people do not have a cause to work so hard- and this is not realistic (Arora, 2).

An article in the Social Science Quarterly last year refuted the thesis of Arlie Hochschild's "The Time Bind." She holds that "people who are dissatisfied with housework, parenting or marriage work more hours, or at least prefer to work more hours, especially if they're highly satisfied with their jobs." The employees of a Fortune 500 company in Hochschild's study "at all levels of the company indicated that work was more pleasurable than home, pointing for instance, to workplace friendships and a feeling that they were more wanted on the job." These responses question the dichotomy of work and family that many of the family policies reinforce (Ascribe Newswire, 1)..

The article written by two sociologists, Dr. Alan Booth and Dr. Susan L. Brown, found Hochschild's results should not speak for working families. They determined, "The only exceptions, where people were at work longer, were parents who had teenagers and were especially dissatisfied at home and satisfied at work. But workers who fit that description compromise only three percent of dual-earner couples who have children" (Ascribe Newswire, 1).

The average American worker who has children does not have the luxury to view time at work as a social sphere- a place they are willing to spend even more time. Without government-funded child care, workers have to pay child care centers for each hour they spend at work. Many workers do not have the kind of disposable income to increase their child care costs so they could socialize at work.
The working professionals who can afford the quality substitute child care can be more willing to spend more time at work, knowing their children are being well cared for in their home. But this minority should not speak for most workers, especially when dealing with policies that can give parents who want to spend more time with their children the opportunity.

What is important about family policies is that they are gender-neutral. Implying that these policies are good for mothers will only reinforce traditional gender roles. If only women were encouraged to take part-time work to balance the family demands it would not have the same effect as if a father took part-time work. When a women takes part-time work, this leaves the "breadwinner" role up to the husband. The husband will then assume the traditional "breadwinner" stereotypes that leave the responsibility of the home up to the women.

Part-time work can be considered supplemental or "extra money" to the male breadwinners, and the work wives contribute will be de-valued. The amount of support a woman receives from her spouse is a factor that will influence her choice to continue in the workplace or stay-at-home. "In general, the more important a man's job, the more backstage support he receives, and the less backstage support for her job a woman receives, the less important her job becomes" (Hochschild, 266). Wives of "breadwinners" perform "virtually all the housework and childcare," and "the wife's commitment to outside employment was generally limited, and her income was considered supplemental" (Coltrane, 97).

However, once men are able to take part-time work, when government policies prohibit part-time work discrimination, then there can be a shift in traditional "breadwinner" roles. Although it seems like it will only when men take part-time work will it have value, it is more that only when the work becomes gender-neutral can society view it as an important investment. One has to consider that gender can have a more constraining hold on men in the workplace than it does women. "Men actually occupy tighter straightjackets than do women when it comes to gender roles. While male characteristics continue to be the gold standard in American [and world] business workplaces, men who stray from those traits can be more penalized than the women who do so." A man who does not live up to his traditional role "is covertly judged to be a slacker" (English, 1).

This provides another perspective to why it is more acceptable for women to utilize family policies. Since a high numbers of women in top levels in professional and business positions have only occurred in recent history, the work culture has not had the time to establish a rigid mold of how working professional women are supposed to act and behave, like it has with men. The call for women to be more "masculine" in order to be in the business world has lessened, and women do not have to break away from generations-old expectations of how they should behave in the workforce as professionals.

In a similar way, it is the women who are penalized for having a demanding work schedule if their family needs are being neglected. This is because women are going against their generations-old expectations of a woman's role in the home. Americans still believe that if push comes to shove, it should be the women who cuts back at work to meet her family demands, which is why they are the ones most often offered flexible policies at work.

Flexibility "provides workers with greater discretion over how they meet their family responsibilities and balance the public and private aspects of their life" (Gerson, 212). This aspect is even more important to women who assume the "second shift," since they are able to fit in the hours needed to fulfill their domestic chores, as well as taking care of the children. Without flexibility at work, it would be impossible for more "traditional" women to perform all of the responsibilities of the home and a demanding workplace.

Part-time work is another option many women take after having children, since "many opt out for shorter hours as a strategy for obtaining flexibility" (Gerson, 213). This is because a majority of women in the nation still consider managing the commitments to home and family their responsibility and do not consider demanding the same level of contribution from their husbands. They see the choice of staying home or continue working as one they have to decide after having children, and this reinforces traditional gender roles in the home.

For mothers employed outside the home, "flexibility and autonomy are likely to be as or more important that working hours" (Gerson, 209). Employers that offer flexible family policies-such as flex-time, working from home, and paid parental leave- will result in less female workers leaving the workplace after having children. This proves true for many women, "and as the workplace becomes more stressful and all-consuming, the exit door is more attractive" (Belkin, 13).

Granting flexible options to workers, especially women, can have the effect of promoting gender equality. However, the policies really just put a band-aid over an old wound. Women may chose to work if flexible options were available, but what if they were not? The same conditions and gender roles still exist women who do not have a financial obligation to work may find "opting-out" an attractive resolution.

There is one example of how conscious changes are being made to make the workplace more aware of how concepts of gender shape workers. Last year, the Ms. Foundation expanded its traditional "feminist" holiday to "Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day." The view has shifted from the previous "Take Your Daughter to Work Day" in the "need to looks at how girls and boys can progress together." This has been in response to criticism that the holiday "bred victimology in girls and left boys behind year after year."

The Ms. Foundation also distributes books and games to "re-educate boys and girls on 'gender stereotypes'." This attempt to bring up the next generation in a gender-aware environment will hopefully lead to real changes. Materials suggest teachers should prepare students for the holiday by asking students to pretend they were living in a box. "Questions teachers should ask include 'What do people say to girls them keep them in boxes?'."

Some people oppose these activities, saying that "teaching girls that they are victims of patriarchal oppression gives them a false view of society and is hardly liberating" (De Pasquale, 1). However, having young boys think how girls are put in "boxes" can make them more sensitive to gender issues in the future and less resistant to change of traditional gender models.

Government policies that support family issues would help the modern American family to balance the demands between work and family. These policies will little to actually fix the underlying causes of gender inequality in the workplace, but hopefully they can give men and women some autonomy from capitalist forces. It is up to individuals to go about changing how society views men and women in the workplace, and legislation will not be the only way to facilitate this change.

Works Cited

Arora, Raksha. "Are Americans Really Abject Workaholics?" Gallup Poll Tuesday
Briefing. 5 Oct. 2004.

Belkin, Lisa. "The Opt-Out Revolution." The New York Times. 26 Oct. 2003

Bunting, Madeleine. "Comment and Analysis: It's all about the opt-out. The Guardian. 27
Sept. 2004.

Ascribe Newswire. "Working Parents Aren't Forsaking Job For Kids." 21 Jan. 2003

Coltrane, Scott. Family Man. New York: Oxford UP. (1996).

Contemporary Women's Issues. March 2003. Vol. 52, No.2.

De Pasquale, Lisa. "The PC Workplace." The Washington Times. 27 April 2003.

English, Holly. "Workplace Issues; When employers deal with 'gender issues,' they need
to include men." Legal Times. 10 Nov. 2003.

Fuss, Diana.. "Inside/Out." Critical Encounters: Reference and Responsibility in Deconstructive Writing. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1995. 233-240.

Hochschild, Arlie. The Second Shift. New York: Rutledge Publishing, Inc. (1995).

Gerson, Kathleen and Jacobs, Jerry A. Changing the Structure and Culture of Work.

Journal of Women's History. September 2003. Vol. 15, No.3.

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