80 hour work weeks

Fred at Stone Court points out a post by Richard Posner about Larry Summers’ comments about women in the sciences.

The sentence of Posner’s that Fred objects to is "Women who want to have children, as most do, must expect to devote more time to child care that men do."

Fred correctly points out that except for pregnancy itself and breastfeeding, there is nothing a woman can do that a man can’t.  Posner has taken an unwarranted leap from the division of labor in the world as it is to talking about the way things "must" be.

Reverse-traditional families — those where the wife is the primary bread earner and the husband is the primary caretaker — exemplify Fred’s point.  My husband can change a diaper, read a story, and care for a sick child as well as I can, and there are some things that he can clearly do better than me (making up songs on the fly is one of his special talents).

And yet… 

I spend the vast majority of my non-work hours with my children (squeezing in blogging and domestic chores in the few hours between when they go to bed and when I crash myself).  I work pretty much a standard 9-5:30 schedule, and at this point in my life, am generally not interested in jobs that would require 60 or 80 hour weeks on a regular basis.  And this is true of all but two or three of the other women I know (online and in person) in reverse traditional families.

Joan Williams argued in a Washington Post op-ed a while back that this is part of a general trend.  When mothers stay home, their husbands typically work longer hours and are less involved with childrearing.  (The causality in this statement is unclear — you could argue with equal plausiblity that women with spouses who work crazy hours are more likely to feel that their children need an at-home parent, that sole earners need to work more hours in order to maintain a standard of living, or that traditional families believe that child care is a woman’s responsiblity.)

However, Williams claims that:

"employed mothers typically are less willing to consign all child care to the stay-at-home spouse. So children in families with stay-at-home fathers may well receive more parental attention than children in households with stay-at-home mothers."

So, while it’s certainly true that mothers can delegate enough childrearing responsibilities to spouses, other family members, or paid help in order to free up 80 hours a week for work, it’s also clearly true that there are very few mothers who are willing to do so.  We could debate from here until the next century whether the reasons that women and men make different choices in this regard — on average — is biological or cultural and still not come to a resolution, but I honestly don’t think it matters. 

I do think parents who work these kinds of hours — both men and women — are missing out on something. What they achieve instead may or may not be worth it; I’ll always support the right of both women and men to make that choice for themselves.  (FYI, for a fictional look at this issue, the protagonist of Life, which I discussed here, is a research scientist with a SAHD spouse; she works very long hours, and her family life suffers, but she makes a major discovery.)

An important empirical question for this discussion is whether the choice between professional achievement and having a life is inherent in the nature of some kinds of work, or is primarily a result of the way we as a society have structured these jobs.  There’s been some great discussion of these issues over at GeekyMom and Mother in Chief; I’m not sure I have much to add.  There are almost certainly cases of both — I don’t think you could be White House Chief of Staff and not expect to spend 100 hours a week working, but I don’t see why on a case where there’s already 30 different people working on it, you can’t sometimes have two lawyers working 40 hours each instead of one working 80.

5 Responses to “80 hour work weeks”

  1. Jody Says:

    I’m going to write something about this later this week, but for now, I just want to present a question about the typical case:
    Two people decide to have a baby. The baby is born or adopted, and one of the parents stays home for six or twelve weeks, or even six months, and then returns to work. When the baby is not adopted, the birth mother stays home, because both de jure and de facto law make it easier for her to do so. (Often, what she’s experiencing can be considered a period of physical disability and her available leave is longer/better paid.) When the baby is adopted, the adoptive mother typically stills stay home more/longer, for the same set of reasons but without the straightforward medical argument.
    Regardless, the typical pattern is for mom to take maternity leave, Dad to eake out what he can (or be brave/wealthy and apply for the parental leaves that are formally offered but informally frowned upon when men avail themselves of them), and then for both parents to return to work.
    My question is, WHY do the parents then speak of paid childcare as something that enables MOM to work? Is not paid childcare something that enables BOTH parents to work? Clearly we’re socialized to imagine that mothers “should” remain home, and that paid childcare therefore replaces maternal labor. But it replaces paternal labor, too. We could just as easily imagine that the FIRST replacement for stay-at-home mothering is stay-at-home fathering, and if the mom returns to work, the dad should be assumed to be shirking HIS duty by remaining in paid employment, and the paid childcare is therefore HIS ticket to employment.
    We don’t, though. Most of us don’t think of it that way.
    More later in my own space.

  2. Suzanne Says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post, (especially since this topic sparked such visceral response over at my blog a couple weeks ago) and was very pleasantly surprised(!!) to see me mentioned in one of the last graphs. The whole idea of what mothers and fathers could or should do is so ingrained in our society. One of my mom-friends works full time while her husband is an at-home dad. Even though she says she understands my desire to work part-time, mostly she thinks it is ridiculous. She also acknowledges that her husband struggles with the same issues that I write about (not giving up on what one does professionally just because we are primary care-takers), but it is almost like it’s okay for her husband to want to keep making art and having art shows, but not okay for me as a women to want to keep writing. Double standards all around, I guess.

  3. Jennifer Says:

    I think at least some of a woman’s willingness to work has to do with how old her children are.
    I went to an interview recently with the CEO of a bank (probably one of those jobs that can’t be split). She has four children – an eighteen year old and triplet 15 year olds.
    When the children were young, she said she worked part time, and then reduced hours. I got the sense that her career had probably slowed down for five years. But now, she is a CEO of a major listed company, and makes time for the kids by driving them to school, taking them on business trips etc etc. (Her husband is a paediatrician)
    My two boys are 3 and 1, and my husband looks after them, and I can’t imagine working much more than my current 40-50 hours. But maybe, if I was the kind of driven person she is, that might change once they hit the teenage years?
    Your life stage (and your childrens’) should not be forgotten in thinking through all these issues.

  4. hilary Says:

    Beyond his egregious sexism, Summers is a boob for making this comment since he is supposedly the leader of a faculty that is acutely aware:
    1. that women who do put in 80 hours per week (moms or not) STILL experience sex discriminated. Just ask Nancy Hopkins at MIT.
    2. That working more hours is not necessarily going to correspond to an increase in achievement. I have to remind my students of this quite often.
    3. The “working” that is included in the 80 hour may include real work (in the case of, say, Nancy Hopkins) but may include playing golf, going out to dinner, hosting big shots, and attending conferences to make ridiculous inflammatory remarks.

  5. Ab_Normal Says:

    When my husband started staying home with our daughter, I worked for life-sucking assholes who required ~80+ hour weeks. I mostly missed an entire year of my daughter’s life. After 16 months, I quit , and have refused to work similar hours since then. My family > $, hands down.

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