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.