Review of the IWPR Conference: Women Working to Make a Difference, June 2003
Jessica Brondo (firstname.lastname@example.org)
This summer, from June 22 to June 24, I attended the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR) third annual conference: Women Working to Make a Difference. The conference sessions were divided into five main categories: "Health, Safety, & Well-Being," "Poverty and Income Security," "Family, Work, & Demographic Change," "Women's Political and Civic Participation," and "Employment, Earnings, and Economic Change." I mainly attended the panels and plenary sessions focusing on work-family issues and women's political participation, but the lists of speakers for all the panels were extremely impressive. While each group of speakers emphasized the importance of empirical research in all areas of policy work (and discussed their own research very thoroughly), they also had very thoughtful ideas about how to promote advocacy strategies based on their empirical data. Despite the speaker's notable credentials, they were very accessible and provided advice for my thesis, which will assess the possibility of introducing paid family leave in the United States, using Italy, Sweden, and Canada as case studies.
The work-family sessions primarily focused on the "time crunch" and family leave policies. Ann Crittenden, the author of The Price of Motherhood, and Joan Williams, Professor of Law at American University, both addressed these issues. Ann Crittenden mainly focused on the "mommy tax" placed on mothers and primary caregivers. She said that American women do not face any major obstacles in the workplace until they have children, at which point they are severely discriminated against. Women often take time off after having a baby, even if their company does not provide leave. In families with two working parents, it is most often mothers who choose to take time off from their careers to care for children, with fathers assuming the traditional breadwinner role. Some women opt for part-time work, while others leave the paid workforce while they have young children at home. Crittenden explained that this has detrimental effects on women's economic status because of the direct impact on social security benefits, pensions, and opportunities to re-enter the workforce.
Joan Williams also discussed obstacles for women with children in the workforce. She asserted that the "ideal worker" in the United States works full time, does not take any time off, and works for 40 years. However, this is in direct conflict with the ideal family structure, where both parents are able to spend time with their children. Because most American companies seem to assume that their employees have no family commitments, mothers hit a "maternal wall" in the workforce (not a glass ceiling), when they have children. They are either forced to sacrifice their careers and work part-time on a "mommy track," for which they get much less respect from their co-workers, or become a stay-at-home mother. Williams explained that in the last 10 years, the number of stay-at-home mothers has increased by 13 percent. She also explained that even though part-time work might seem like a viable option, it still has negative effects on women's economic security because the majority of benefits do not carry over in the transition from full-time to part-time. She argued for "part time equity," part time jobs that would provide equivalent benefits on a pro-rated basis.
There were several panels devoted to family leave policies, each focusing on a different aspect of leave. One panel focused on paid leave policies around the world, and mainly discussed examples from Western Europe. Janet Gornick, of Baruch College, explained that most European countries have three types of leave: maternity, paternity, and family or parental. Maternity leaves usually give mothers 3-6 months off at 80-100 percent pay, while paternity leaves last for 2-10 days and are at 100 percent pay. Family or parental leaves are for both mothers and fathers and normally range from 6-12 months over 3-5 years at 50-75 percent pay on the Continent, and at 80 percent pay in the Netherlands. Jodi Grant, of the National Partnership for Women and Families, discussed California's new paid leave policy. California recently became the first state to pass a paid family leave policy. The law will come into effect in January 2004, and the benefits will begin in July 2004. The policy gives all workers 6 weeks leave at 55 percent pay. It is important to note that the policy is financed by a small tax on all workers, and the program has no budgetary implications for the state of California. Although it is not nearly as generous as European policies, it is a modest step in the right direction.
The prospect of passing legislation on federal paid leave policies is currently very grim, according to Sen. Kennedy's Senior Adviser on Family Policies. Senator Gregg, the Chairman of the Labor Committee, has introduced the FMLA Clarification Act, which cuts back on the current FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act) benefits by limiting the definition of serious health conditions, as well as the use of intermittent leave.
Prof. Gornick briefly addressed the opposition to paid leave. There is an assumption that extensive paid leave policies destroy women's attachment to the workforce and make it more difficult for them to return to work after taking leave, which in turn exacerbates gender inequality in earnings. However, Gornick contends that only extra long leaves (more than a year) will destroy women's attachment to the workforce. She argues that short-term leaves will raises overall labor participation rates, because it actually increases the likelihood of women returning to work after their leave.
Overall, the representation on each panel was very diverse, which allowed participants to hear a wide range of perspectives on many policy issues. I was especially impressed with the representation of Third Wave feminists on the panels. It was the first time I have attended a conference on women's issues where young scholars were invited to speak about their research, and it was very refreshing and thought provoking to hear the two different perspectives. I was a little disappointed with the lack of representation of the opposition viewpoint. I think it would have been extremely beneficial to have people speak on research that opposes some of these policies or at least touches on some of the negative impacts of the policies. However, the level of energy exuded by all the speakers was extremely inspirational, and I left the conference with a lot of hope for the future.
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