Friday, March 13, 2015

Changing Katherine’s perspective: the anti-motherhood mindset in the United States workplace

Employers and employees in the United States workforce place high value on "masculine qualities," and correspondingly less value on "feminine qualities" like caretaking and motherhood. It's not only men who devalue employees with familial obligations. Women can be equally judgmental on this score.

A recent article illustrated this point. Katherine, a former executive, described her mindset as highly judgmental and unaccepting of her coworkers with children. She would question the commitment of mothers who couldn't make last minute happy hours with her work team, and she even supported the idea of firing another woman before she became pregnant, because she believed mothers were less committed to their employer. In her article she stated:
For mothers in the workplace, it’s death by a thousand cuts – and sometimes it’s other women holding the knives. I didn’t realize this – or how horrible I’d been – until five years later, when I gave birth to a daughter of my own.
Katherine underwent an awakening after having a child. She wrote this article to apologize to all the women that she judged for having caretaking responsibilities. When I read her article, I thought it was great that Katherine finally valued the obligations that come with being a mother.

However, I found myself wondering if Katherine would have changed her attitude if she hadn’t given birth. Stated another way, how can men and childless women with mindsets similar to Katherine's reach this place of understanding without going through a similar awakening? Does the awakening have to be because of one's own parenthood? The mindset continually perpetuated—commitment to the employer over caretaking—needs to change in order to stop pushing mothers out of the U.S. workforce.

The need for this change is not only apparent from anecdotes. The White House recently released the 2015 Economic Report of the President. The report discussed prime-age female labor participation rates between 1991 and 2013. In the early 1990s, the United States ranked 7th out of 24 OECD countries for female participation rates; well above average. Since then, U.S. female participation rates have plateaued and drifted downward.

While the downturn in labor participation among females is unsettling, the decline is worse when compared to participation rates in other high-income countries. In other OECD countries, female labor participation rates have continued to rise since the 1990s, demoting the U.S. to number 19 out of OECD countries for the statistic. The White House report primarily attributes the rise in other countries to the expansion of leave.

When it comes to maternity leave, the United States is not only an outlier among its peers, but also amongst most countries in the world. In a study of 185 countries by the International Labour Office, the United States and Papa New Guinea were the only two countries that did not legally require paid maternity leave. The report found that while 12% of private sector workers in the U.S. have access to paid family leave, only 5% of low-income workers currently have access to the entitlement. 
Paid Maternity Leave Around the World
Country Weeks of Paid Maternity Leave
Australia 18 weeks
Azerbaijan 165 weeks
Germany 57 weeks
Honduras 8 weeks
Japan 58 weeks
North Korea 11 weeks
Qatar 7 weeks
Russia 78 weeks
Sudan 8 weeks
United Kingdom 39 weeks
United States 0 weeks
 Source: Buzzfeed
Is the United States stuck in the past because there are too many Katherines in political office and in the workforce? I think so. The overwhelming majority of countries in the world have mandated paid maternity leave, because they value caretaking as a public good necessary to protect the economic and physical wellbeing of women and children. It's rather pathetic that the most powerful nation in the world has yet to recognize the value of motherhood and caretaking through a Federal law requiring a minimum period of paid maternity leave. It's time for the United States to take note of the leave practices in 183 other countries around the world, and initiate systematic change here. For a discussion of maternity leave practices in Switzerland compared with the United States, read Child Cost (Part 1): Maternity Leave.


Jessica S. said...

Unfortunately, it's not uncommon for many people to have mindsets like Katherine's. That's why we don't have guaranteed leave in the US. It's not only about devaluing caretaking; it's also about thinking that a coworker's pregnancy is causing you to lose money. We distort the immediate situation instead of securing a better quality of life for all. We do have sexism, as we discussed earlier in the semester. When companies value/promote "masculine" non-work activities like sports and happy hours, and look down on family obligations, people absorb that message. Going to a bar and taking maternity leave both have nothing to do with work tasks really, but it serves businesses to value the masculine. Exploiting the male-workaholic-profit/female-caretaking-costs dynamic (which is obviously a sexist construction to begin with) encourages the competitive mindset. It's extremely difficult to get everyone to value caretaking, pregnancy, or anything until they themselves want to do it. Beyond sexist attitudes about caretaking, we're still living in this system that makes us put ourselves first above others. Even though we want to continue the human race, many men and women get resentful and angry about others having children. I've read comments on maternity leave articles, and they can be truly horrible. Why even care if someone else gets maternity leave? But I’m afraid many people don’t see the big picture. They think someone’s “getting a perk” at their expense because that is how we’ve been trained to think. The United States promotes competition and immediate victories as the path to success. Everyone needs to realize that it’s a mentality that erodes all workers’ rights, and makes us regard things like vacation time, leaves, disability accommodations, etc. as lavish benefits instead of necessary maintenance of healthy workplaces.

Ahva said...

I agree that it is unfortunate that women like Katherine can be so judgmental of their care-taking female peers. I actually think that it is worse when women have this sort of mindset, because when women judge women for care-taking, it makes it okay for men to judge women for care-taking. It allows men to point to the non-awakened Katherines of the world, praise them for their work ethic, and hold every other woman to that standard. It also allows men to parade the non-awakened Katherines as a mascot for diversity in the workplace. This reminds of the conversation we had earlier in the semester about how it can be detrimental for female professionals not to take advantage of their employer's leave policies, because by not doing so, they are setting an unrealistic standard for other women with families to live up to.

Heather said...

I think part of the problem lies in the fact that many women in positions of power like Katherine feel they had to give up being a mother fr their career, and they harbor resentment that makes it difficult for them to support women who attempt to "have it all." I do not think this is right, but I understand it. I believe a legal shift is necessary to change the mindset of both men and women. If the law required paid maternity and paternity leave, more would take advantage and over time our society would come to appreciate the importance of work and family balance. The company the United States currently keeps in this regard is embarrassing.

Courtney Hatchett said...

It's interesting to come back to this article, almost a year later, as Mark Zukerberg publicly re-enters the workforce after a two month paternity leave. No, the US has not had a dramatic legal shift in offering paid maternity and paternity leave, but there has been somewhat of a shift among the silicon valley tech companies. When trying to compete for new talent, maternity and paternity leave are now flaunted as a bonus incentive for companies like Facebook, Apple, and Netflix. However, some of the issues surrounding this were brought to light when Netflix was exposed as offering family leave only to salaried workers. We are now at a point that family leave is acknowledged and supported in many circles, however it is only a privilege of the most privileged. The people who may need paid family leave the most are the women and families working in part-time positions, living paycheck to paycheck without on-site daycare or a stay at home nanny.