We Need to Focus More on Voice than on Exit for Gender Equality
Given her primary focus on Princeton alumnae*, I think it's appropriate to respond to "The Opt-Out Revolution" by Lisa Belkin '82 in a forum to be read by current students, male and female. In case you missed it, it was the cover story of the New York Times Magazine (October 26, 2003). There have been more than 950 responses to the "Opt Out Revolution" on the NY Times website, and I understand that there was a lively debate among alumnae on the Tigernet, as well.
In privileging "the freedom to choose to work or not to" as a feminist victory, Belkin has missed the fundamental problem-that most institutions have failed to accommodate the needs of working parents, women and men. The failure to promote family-friendly public policies and the associated failure to transform workplaces into family-friendly institutions exacerbates the double burden for women. This is the real basis for the "stalled revolution" towards equality. This is a failure that confronts affluent, highly educated parents, as much as it does working class parents, who obviously do not share the luxury of "opting out." Indeed, with the emphasis on work for poor mothers ushered in by the welfare reforms of 1996, that "choice" has become even more distant. Borrowing the ever resilient framework first introduced by Albert Hirschman, I propose that we need to focus less on those who have exited, and more on those who have raised their voices in an effort to transform institutions. In so doing, we remain loyal to the struggle for gender equality. The point is not only to occupy positions of power, but to use that power to change institutions for the benefit of all.
To be sure, the entry of mothers (defined here as women with children below 6 years) into the American labor force in significant numbers, from 20 percent in 1960, to 65 percent today, is one of the defining features of my generation. But the institutions in which we now spend so much time outside of the family have barely changed. Indeed, the average American work week has grown longer, not shorter, by as much as one month more a year. Belkin suggests that the elite women who have opted out, perhaps temporarily, are redefining work and success by exercising their "exit option." She reaches this conclusion, despite the warning she cites from Sylvia Ann Hewlett, that even these Princeton graduates will find it difficult to reenter the workforce on their own terms. In a recent lecture here, Hewlett referred to this as the problem of too many "off ramps" on the career highway for professional women, with too few "on ramps." Belkin makes passing reference to some of the expanding literature on work and family challenges. But her arguments are not really shaped by the incredible insights those authors present. As a starting point, I highly recommend Ann Crittenden's "The Price of Motherhood" and Joan Williams "Unbending Gender," both published in 2000.
Like Belkin, I graduated from college in 1982, so we can assume our worldviews were shaped by similar social currents. I took feminism for granted, and I have never been afraid to use the F word, as Anna Quindlen recently called it. Defined as "the policy, practice or advocacy of political, economic and social equality for women," it hardly seems a radical notion. Most people focus on equality of opportunity, but the experience of the Princeton alumnae that Belkin interviewed underscores the reality that equal opportunity has not translated into equal outcomes for men and women. Why is this?
We need to question the nature of "choices" that are presented to women. In the absence of paid maternity leaves and affordable child care options, it is not surprising that women who can afford to are opting out. Even if they work part time, their reduced earnings are taxed at the higher rate for both parents' collective earnings. And Crittenden reminds us that the focus on choice obscures the underlying power imbalance (her Ch. 13 is brilliant, appropriately entitled, "It was her choice.") Would professional women choose to opt out if they enjoyed the family friendly policies available to all parents in Sweden-one year's paid leave at 75 percent of earnings, which can be shared between parents, and the right to work at 80 percent time while your child is less than 8 years old. And, since 1994, it is mandatory that fathers must take at least one month of that leave, in addition to the 10 days available to them immediately following the child's birth. This policy was the result of a national Fathers'Commission, and male political leadership played an important part in promoting it.
In my seminar on Gender and Development, I introduce students to the distinction between practical and strategic gender needs. It is clear that expanding childcare choices and the provision of paid leaves respond to women's practical needs. But, the strategic gender need is to move beyond the traditional division of labor that assumes women at home and men in the workplace. We need more policies that promote active parenting by fathers. Sweden's mandatory one month paternity leave is one such policy. When I have queried students about strategic gender needs, they have pointed out a less radical, but incredibly practical need-placing baby changing tables in all bathrooms, men's and women's. It would be a strategic gain as well. There is no doubt that more equal parenting responsibilities would serve everyone's interests.
When I left Princeton with an MPA, I started my career with the Ford Foundation, which has been at the forefront of promoting women's rights at home and around the world for three decades now. As a progressive employer, Ford had a parental leave policy in place since it began its programming for women in the early 1970s. Sylvia Hewlett was told that no male had ever availed of the policy in 32 years. But I know of at least one man who did. In the late 1980s in New Delhi, he was an assistant program officer, on a limited term appointment, on leave from graduate study. He therefore had less to lose in terms of his professional standing. The competitive work culture that looks down on men for taking parental leave also limits men's choices. Women need male allies, men who are willing to utilize family leaves (for caring for children and later, for adult dependents), and institutional leadership that does not discriminate against either sex for utilizing that entitlement.
Also, in the late 1980s, the Foundation launched a new initiative on Work and Family. I suspect the transformation in the gender composition of Ford's own professional staff, from 23 percent female to 56 percent in 1986, played a part, but it also reflected the changes in the labor force. The focus of much of the research was on the ways in which the workplace must and can be transformed. There are corporate success stories, such as the high quality on-site daycare provided by Bristol Myers Squibb, but these must be replicated on a massive scale and be made available to all levels of employees. Two years ago, a group called Corporate Voices was established to broaden access to work support programs, which disproportionately have benefited high wage workers, and to advocate for supportive public policies for working families. Its 36 member corporations have recognized the bottom-line benefits of helping low wage employees with work-life issues. The return on such programs is 4:1, due to lower staff turnover and less absenteeism. At the elite level, both Hewlett and Belkin singled out Ernst and Young for its "part-time partner track" and the growing number of men who are taking advantage of its parental leave policy. These are the kinds of institutional and strategic gender changes that would be useful to highlight.
I appreciate that Belkin chose to focus on those women who, at least by virtue of their elite training, were expected to compete with men on their terms. So let me turn to my own cohort of MPA's. We entered Princeton in the fall of 1983 as master's candidates in the Woodrow Wilson School. The female students made up just over 40 percent of our class. I think all would agree with Belkin that we did not anticipate any significant challenges to balancing a career and family. We were going to do it all, and no one warned us otherwise. This year the entering class of MPA's is more than 70 percent female, and I think it's safe to say that they have been forewarned of some future challenges.
Twenty years later, I do know that of those original 24 women, only one has defined herself primarily as caregiver over the years. Several are practicing lawyers and a few others are tenured faculty at other institutions. Others are working in the public sector and a few have risen to prominence in the nonprofit sector and the media, including the current editor of PAW. There are a few others in the corporate sector, including a senior vice president at a pharmaceutical company. It is instructive that her husband defines himself as a caregiver, underscoring the adage "that one needs a wife to succeed." (Even Belkin recognized this truth in an earlier column entitled, "Do Women Lack Drive? Or a Wife?" NYT, 10/13/02). Most have had children, while a few have chosen not to. I presume that was a choice, but I know enough about infertility challenges to know that some apparent "choices" are the results of serious constraints, many of which are not of our own making.
I suspect that all of my MPA classmates who became parents (women and men) faced the serious problems posed by the "ideal worker norm" that characterizes most of the good jobs, according to Joan Williams. The ideal worker is expected to work 50-70 hours a week, travel frequently, even relocate, mainly because he (usually) is backed up by a "marginalized caretaker" at home. Williams points out that this gendered model of work leads to discrimination against women in the workplace, and probably at home. There is a serious imbalance between the sexes in the distribution of domestic responsibilities, even when both parents are working. One of the most important policies Williams advocates is part time equity, pro-rated benefits for part time workers. This would expand the real options for families, since many are forced to rely on one (usually the male) wage earner's benefits package.
It's important for me to acknowledge here that I did opt out, for almost two years after my daughter was born, and I am very glad I did so. But I also know that living abroad in India during most of that time insulated me from the psychological pressure of having shifted to a "mommy track." I suspect that I am not alone among my female classmates, but I wish we did not pay a price for it. I recently learned of one male classmate, a lawyer working for the State Dept., who has opted for a job shared with his spouse. I wish that there were more stories of male classmates who had challenged traditional parenting roles, either by opting out for a time or utilizing the legal entitlement of twelve weeks of unpaid paternity leave (guaranteed by the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993). I
In the end, I am just not comfortable with the focus on elite women. Such a focus only fuels the criticism that the women's movement is only for white women and those of privilege. Princeton has demonstrated that leadership can have a women's face, but unfortunately, poverty also has a women's face--with 70 percent of the world's poor. In the US, female headed households have the highest rates of poverty-in 2002, they constituted half of the 7.2 million families in poverty. In her final chapter Crittenden outlines more than 20 policy options that would enhance the status of caregivers. She is careful to point out that these would enhance the parenting options for caregivers of both sexes. Prominent among the policies are paid family leaves of at least one year and universal preschool for 3 and 4 year olds. I know that many readers will dismiss these as "unrealistic European options," but the District of Columbia provides universal pre-school for 4 year old toddlers. New York has approved it, but has not yet financed it. This entitlement benefits the poor and working class the most, since most elite parents do "opt out" of the public system. All mothers and children would benefit from these options, in no small measure because they help to raise the status of caregiving professions. California last year became the first state to approve paid family leave up to six weeks, financed by a small tax on all workers. This is a step forward, but the rates are still so low to be meaningless for poor women.
One estimate is that it would cost the US $85 billion to spend an equivalent share of its gross domestic product on subsidized childcare and paid leave as France does (The American Prospect, Jan 1-15, 2001). I realize that in 2003 we are a nation not likely to be influenced by French precedent, but today that figure is a powerful reminder that it comes down to tradeoffs about policy choices. There are clear public policies that would reduce the enormous stresses that caregivers encounter. There is also a clear need for reduced work weeks and more flexibility in the workplace. A chorus of voices demanding institutional and policy changes will be more powerful than the exit of those of privilege. The challenge remains for all of us to truly "redefine work and success." I look forward to accounts of how Princeton alumni, men and women, are promoting work and family balance, and in the process, greater gender equality.
*I am consciously using the female plural form since Belkin only interviewed female graduates.
--Submitted by Karen L. McGuinness, Lecturer in the Woodrow Wilson School, and one of the Faculty Advisors to the Gender and Policy Network
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