Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Womenomics, two-income traps, and misconceptions

Browsing the Economics/Law section of my neighborhood secondhand bookstore, I came across an interesting title: Womenomics, by Claire Shipman and Katty Kay. The authors are journalists, with Good Morning America and BBC News, respectively, and they advocate for women to make the bold move and ask for work schedules that would accommodate more time -- to spend with their families, or with anything else, but work.  They argue that "time is the new currency," at least for most women. They further argue that in this economic climate, employees who figure out creative work schedules (and the resulting cost savings for their companies) are increasingly valuable in the employers' struggle to raise the bottom line.

Apart from its unabashed essentialism, Womenomics raises an important point: how much longer are we going to bear the burden of the definition of work set to an inherently male standard?  If we allow the definition of ideal worker to be set to that of the early capitalist era (i.e., the typically male factory worker who does what he's told, never misses work for family problems, is seldom sick, does not need vacations, and is easily replaceable on the market of free labor) women are not seen for what they are, but for their shortcomings.  

Economists, such as Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (authors of the popular Freakonomics/Super Freakonomics books) bring up studies to show that women do not respond to monetary incentives the same way men do.  If companies are to follow the laws prohibiting gender discrimination, and if they are honest about their desire for diversity, they must devise alternative incentives to retain women employees. And they would do themselves much good: Shipman and Kay show statistics in Womenomics evidencing that "feminized" companies (where a majority of the professional workforce is female) make more money.

One part of the equation is missing, however, from this line of analysis.  What happens when a woman goes to work outside of her home? She (and her spouse, I might add) must find quality child-care. The dearth of affordable child-care and preschool facilities however makes this "choice" increasingly difficult. The mother-daughter team of TARP-czar Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi exposed in The Two-Income Trap the ongoing bidding war for decent neighborhoods with good public schools. That phenomenon, in turn, resulted in unprecedented high housing costs for most middle-class families. But public education only kicks in after the child's fifth birthday. Few families can afford comfortably a quality child-care service for five years per child. And if a family has three children under the age of five, there is a powerful incentive for one of the parents to stay home. With women earning consistently less for equal work, it is no wonder that women are increasingly making the "choice" to stay at home with their young children.

In her searing critique of the American model of motherhood, Misconceptions, Naomi Wolf laments that the professional men married to her professional friends did not even attempt to adjust their work schedules after the birth of their babies. And that is where Womenomics loses its grip on its plea for equality: why do we say that women should be brave and request adjustments to their work hours, to have more time with their families? Why should the burden fall on women in creating a lifestyle that works for their family unit? Where is the men's share in taking a step back in their career development, in their benefits, income rate, or promotion lock-step? 

As long as we stand still and allow the male performer remain the workplace ideal, we will never be equal either at work or at home.  Wolf writes in Misconceptions:
If you look only at its no-win policies, it's easy to conclude that American society, though it claims to revere new mothers and newborn babies, does not bear that rhetoric with the real help that mothers and babies need. The guidebooks on my shelf tended to treat the work-family dilemma as a private problem, offering little help... [D]eep breathing exercises could scarcely help new mothers cope with their responsibilities in the only industrialized country without national maternity benefits, paid leave, or a coherent day care policy. [Wolf, p. 230.]
Wolf goes on to point out that Americans would not be willing to pay for the high taxation levels that these policies would require, unless "Americans could come to see the birthing and early development of our future generations as being as valuable to society as public education or Social Security."

Alas, Americans do not especially value public education or Social Security, either.  There is an increasing demand for private school vouchers, and for the privatization of Social Security. Judging by the amounts that the U.S. spends on these two programs, especially compared to National Defense spending, we should aim to put motherhood on the same pedestal as the latter.


Rebecca said...

You post reminds me of this riddle:

A young boy is brought to the emergency room in critical condition. He is triaged and he needs immediate surgery.

The surgeon enters the room and says, “I can’t operate on this patient: he is my son.”
However, the surgeon is not the boy’s father.
Why can’t the surgeon operate?

Few get the answer to this riddle because the automatic assumption that most everyone makes is that surgeons are MEN.

The riddle’s answer is that the surgeon is the boy’s mother.

Medicine, particularly surgical specialties, is not gender balanced. Few occupations are sex balanced and certainly the high-paying blue-collar jobs are thought of as belonging to a “mans’ world”.

I was in the health care field and would hear things about my female medical school friends like,

“Oh she should go into pediatrics or family practice. She doesn’t have the personality or stomach to be a surgeon.”

This presumes that there is a set of personality traits that are commonly associated with the higher paying surgical jobs and masculinity.

I doubt that there is any empirical evidence to support this. I bet it is much more likely to be the same tired historical interpretation of separate spheres and the notion that women are somehow intellectually inferior and should only pursue the lower range of professional jobs if at all. There is also an assumption that to be a surgeon (or for that matter a business attorney), you need to independent, ambitious, competitive and on the breadwinner track. Traits more naturally suited to men.


This just makes me want to dig in my high-heels and prove them wrong, because of course they are.

Alcestis said...

"Ask for work schedules that would accommodate more time to spend with families."

This is a vey interesting concept, but one I have seen fall through. Working at a large law firm as a paralegal, I got to witness the life of a part-time associate, who by the way was returning from maternity leave. She asked to have a more flexible schedule, to spend more time with her newborn baby, and was told that she would be on a part-time work schedule. However, at my firm part-time means 7am to 10pm (or later) Monday through Saturday. I guess you can say that is flexible, but even when she wasn't at the office I was often asked to call her after midnight.

It didn't seem fair then and it especially doesn't seem fair now that I have learned more about the second job working mothers have when they get home. "Thankfully" her hard work paid off because she made partner. But I can't imagine how she balances it all. Her husband is also a partner at a big law firm, and I doubt he is pulling a second shift when he gets home. I'm happy there is proof that you can have a full and successful career and a family, but to be honest having it "all" doesn't seem that great.

2elle said...

I think that this post brings up a great point, why shouldn't men ask for a more flexible schedule to accomodate family time? I think until men start asking for this type of schedule as well things will be slow to change. I am pretty outraged by the idea of the "second shift" and I think it would be best for families if fathers became more involved as well when both parents are working outside the home.

Both of my parents worked outside the home. When I was very young, before I went to school, my grandmother basically took care of me all day. I can't imagine how hard it would have been on my parents if they didn't have that option. Later, when we moved to the US, the only option was daycare. It wasn't ideal, but I am glad that my mom didn't have to give up her career as a dentist. She set a great example for me and made me think that women achieving great success in their career was the norm.

If there was no daycare option (due to finances/location) I honestly don't know what my mother could have done. I think a lot of families are in this situation and there needs to be a greater push for a variety of affordable and reliable child care options.