Policy levers and the domestic glass ceiling

Having been quoted as saying I don’t know what’s going to break through the domestic glass ceiling, I’ve been thinking a lot about what will.

In Judith Warner’s op-ed on Friedan, she suggests the usual laundry list of "family-friendly" policies: parental leave, child care, universal preschool, better afterschool options, good part-time jobs.  I think that these are good things to demand for other reasons, but I’m intensely skeptical of the idea that they’re going to change the division of household labor.  In particular,  I agree with Rhonda Mahony, that increasing the availability of part-time options is likely to accentuate the gender division of labor — because if you have one part-time worker and one full-time worker in a family, the part-time worker is likely to do the vast majority of the housework.  And in the absence of other major societal shifts, women are much more likely to avail themselves of the part-time options than men. 

It’s really hard to think of public policy levers on this issue.  I can’t make a case that there’s a public interest in cleanliness that justifies subsidizing housecleaning (vs. the very real public interest in well-raised children).  Feminist authors sometimes wax nostalgic about the government interventions during World War II, such as public canteens, that made "Rosie the Riveter" possible, but in a world with a McDonald’s on every third block, cooking is probably the household task least in need of further outsourcing.

The one area where I think there might be some productive intervention is in pushing back against the increasing number of hours expected of full-time workers.  As Laura at 11d wrote in The Wolves From Work:

Let me get this straight. He’s gone from the house for 60 hours per week. He sees his kids for an hour per day. And now he’s supposed to be checking his e-mail, while he watches his kid’s soccer game. The people that he spends 10 hours a day with are making him spend more time in the evening with them, so they can do jello shots and pat each other on the back for closing all those deals. As he’s pounding shots and head butting the other guys, the kids and I are supposed to amuse ourselves.

It’s just not realistic to expect people with any choice in the matter to work 60+ hours a week and then come home to scrub the bathroom floor.  And men pretty much always have a choice in the matter.

24 Responses to “Policy levers and the domestic glass ceiling”

  1. landismom Says:

    I totally agree that the issue of employers demanding more and more hours at work is a huge part of the problem. I fight against these kinds of demands all the time, usually not from my immediate boss, but from other senior staff in the organization, which really pisses me off. In my view, if my supervisor doesn’t have a problem with the number of hours that I work & how much I am or am not willing to travel, then it’s really not anyone else’s business. And yet I keep having to get into conversations with people about why I only go to one day of the monthly two-day staff meeting, etc. I set very finite limits on what kind of hours & travel I was willing to do from the very first interview for this job–I basically told them, ‘if you can’t live with this, you shouldn’t hire me’, and a year later I’m still getting pushback about it from other people in the organization. It just pisses me off, and yet, I know that the only reason that they’re willing to put up with my non-conformity at all is that a) I’m really good at my job & b) they need women in management positions. It’s enormously frustrating.

  2. P Daniel-Ohms Says:

    The domestic and sexual violence movement has done a very good job of keeping men’s behavior in the center of the analysis – rather than focusing almost exclusively on the choices that women are making, as the opt-out/domestic glass ceiling discussion tends to. Perhaps this was easier because there were clear public policy strategies (particularly through the criminal law) for addressing men’s contribution to the problem.
    Nevertheless, there are many of us who are endebted to the women’s movement for holding us to a higher standard and not giving up on our humanity. In the case of the domestic/sexual violence movement, it was our potential _not_ to be rapists, batterers, or harassers. In the case of the domestic glass ceiling discussion, could it be our potential to love our families and transcend our limitations through the work of childcare and housework? Indeed the statistics show that men now do a not insignificant amount of domestic work, even if many of us have still to take ownership of and responsibility for the work to the extent that women do.
    The women’s movement may not in fact have a lot of “policy levers” on this problem in the foreseeable future, but Elizabeth, do you think it is possible to keep men’s behavior more in the forefront of the analysis? I shudder to think where I would be as a parent and a husband without the influence of feminists who have expected more from men. Here’s a personal plea: please do not give up on us!
    ps. What ever happened to Rhona Mahoney?

  3. bj Says:

    I’ve never been a fan of the “standard laundry list” of feminist workplace accommdations, because I’m convinced they create a mommy track, and make the non-mommy track tougher (which impacts both men, who rarely chose the mommy track, and may not even be given the option, and women who don’t want the mommy track). I think having part-time tracks, for example, will inevitably mean a poorly paid part-time track, combined with an over-worked full-time track.
    But, how do we create a better work atmosphere that would be used by everyone? and thus not impose gender differences (that is, if we got to control the public policy levers)? I think that’s the question we’re asking. Elizabeth — you suggest that there are no public policy levers. But, I think there might be, at least ones that are as plausible as the laundry list feminists usually ask for.
    The levers include public policy changes that limit the benefit of the “ideal worker” (Joan Walsh, right?) to the employer. Ideal workers benefit the employer because the incremental cost of someone who works 60 hours rather than 40 is less than adding another person to work those extra 20 hours. Part of that incremental benefit is immune to public policy (on the whole), because it results from the value of expertise in the modern workplace. If I’m working on a computer program, a science project, an newspaper article, I clearly can’t just hand it off to someone else and expect them to start off where I left off. My extra 20 hours accomplishes more. Work can be reorganized to mitigate this impact, but I’m not sure of the role of public policy in this process.
    But some aspects of the incremental cost of hiring someone new can be changed. For example, if we didn’t demand that benefits, like health care, that cost an employer for each employee, rather than each hour, be paid for by the employer, the incremental cost of adding an individual would change (i.e. universal health care). Any other suggestions along these lines? I think they rely on per/person costs being paid differently than per/hour costs, and public policies being developed to treat those costs differently.

  4. jen Says:

    My experience has been that the playing field does not level for parents (or anyone unwilling to work inhuman hours) until the ENTIRE COMPANY develops a culture of not tolerating tons of extra hours. If you “let” someone skip one day of a standard tw-day meeting, the playing field has not been leveled. The only true answer is to not schedule two-day, off-site meetings. Unfortunately those in positions of power are going to be the same people who benefited from the current system. It will take enormous changes — either at the very top, or from the entire bottom — to alter this.
    In my view it all gets back to the 40-hour week. Did not entire generations suffer enormously to make the 40-hour week law? And yet it’s been thrown out the window for many of us; not sure how that happened.

  5. Helaine Says:

    Attacking men for not doing their share of the domestic work is not going to get anyone anywhere and it is probably not the most important part of the equation, anyhow. The real problem is the culture of work, the culture that says you are not a valuable employee unless you are giving your all and then some to some corporation that will give you no stability and no guarantee of a secure future in return.
    As a writer married to another writer, I actually know quite a few men who would love to work part-time. They call my house a lot, looking for advice, comfort, etc. But they rarely follow through. They fear embarassment, potential loss of income and actual loss of status. These things are important to men, whether we like to admit it or not. Moreover, many men also seem to beleive that it is women, not men, are given more chances to get back on an upwardly mobile career track if they step off for a time. Women, in their view, have “the children excuse.”
    My solve: We need to make our claims sexually neutral, to say that all men and all women deserve the right to work as they see fit and not be penalized if they want “the parent track,” the “my parent is ill and I want to spend time with them track” or the “I really want to try my hand at being a novelist track” for a time. Once we’ve won that battle, then we can tackle the division of domestic duties with some actual chance at success.

  6. Julie Says:

    I am in the middle of a great book on this very topic: Unbending Gender; Why Work and Family Conflict and What to Do About It, by Joan Williams. I ran across it in the bookstore of the Women’s Rights Museum in Seneca Falls. As BJ discusses, Williams focuses a lot on changing the definition of the “ideal worker.” As a Corporate America “ideal worker” (married, no kids yet), I am skeptical that the culture can ever be changed, but I hope that Williams has some good suggestions on this later in the book. Certainly, this is an issue that transcends gender boundaries. If my husband wasn’t working 60 or more hours a week and had a little bit of time for himself, he might not have a bottle of sleeping pills on his bedside table.

  7. Christine Says:

    In today’s attack on worker benefits I think the domestic glass cieling is here to stay. The climate in any workplace is work more for the same money to stay in the game. The minute someone starts speaking against excessive hours they are deemed a socialist. France increased their weekly hours to 35, ofcourse with much protest. If other countries that value a balanced lifestyle are caving into increased work lifestyles is there any real possibility for us to relax? I work part-time now that I have a child and have job-shared with women with children who also need to work. I always feel somewhat detached from coworkers and the company in part-time work; corporate expectations are unreasonable. The argument that feminist discussion about benefits during World War II are unrealistic is wrong. In studying other countries’ (France, Sweden, Denmark, Italy and even the U.K.) policies regarding family leave, paid leave, maternity time, part-time worker incentives (especially for women) it shows how far behind the U.S. is in the workplace compared with the rest of the industrialized world. These countries need women in the workplace and have created policies to ensure they stay. The 1941 Latham Act during WWII created daycare centers, etc. to allow women to work because there was a need. 50% of the populous cannot be consistently treated as disposable elements (be there when we need you and go away when we don’t). What shocks me is that women don’t fight more for a better workplace for everyone. Men need to be more active in family besides cleaning. Do women realize how disadvantaged financially at retirement, due to the mommy track and now daughter track (taking care of elderly and sick parents), they are in lacking benefits, pensions, etc.? Do women sacrafice economic independence in staying home? With divorce rates today and judges not awarding alimony to highly educated women this is a problem. Do economics and tax laws promote women to stay home? Everyone discusses cleaning, cooking and childrearing, but there are other issues evident in women staying home.

  8. amy Says:

    hang on a minute. (and yes, I’m breaking shabbos.)
    Elizabeth, you seem to be assuming that everyone needs at least 1.5 incomes. I think you may be predicating this on a coastal cost of living. Not everyone lives in mad housing markets. We would have no problem here living on two part-time-with-benefits salaries for a few years; in fact, it’d be ideal. Come to think of it, that’s essentially how we’ll be living as my husband goes back to part-time work and I go back to either school or part-time work.
    If you’re looking at marriages without children, it gets even more sensible. When I lived with my ex, we never worked fulltime, and never would have pursued it. Mostly we worked part-time wage and freelance jobs. Two salaried part-time jobs would’ve put us in clover here.
    I don’t think it works as a permanent thing if you’re trying to save for children’s educations as well. But I see no reason why it shouldn’t work well when the kids are young and there’s a lot of home/child work to do. You just want to be careful about where you live, then.

  9. Jennifer Says:

    I have some hope that this will improve (at least here in Australia – I don’t know what the projections are in the US) in 10 years or so when demography will mean that there are fewer available workers, so the ones that are there will have more ability to dictate their working hours a bit better.
    But as an employer, why wouldn’t you choose the person who will work 60 hours a week on a regular basis over the one who only wants 40 hours and has no flexibility to put in extra time for emergencies? Even if the 40 hour person is a bit cheaper, they are unlikely to be 33% cheaper. If good people are easy to find, then the pressure ratchets up.
    On the optimistic side, though, in my profession (actuary) I am seeing an increasing number of men as well as women who are demanding flexibility in their working lives. I personally know five men in executive type jobs who have chosen to work part-time for family reasons. It’s hard to find good actuaries, which is how they can do it. And actuaries are well paid from quite a young age, which means they usually can afford it.
    It’s hard to see the culture of work changing until a big enough proportion of all workers say “enough” – and refuse to work those long hours. But I am hopeful, because in the last 10 years, the younger workers in my organisation have been much fussier about their working hours. So if the “ideal worker” as described above becomes less available, then work will have to be more accommodating for those who want to work 40 hours instead of 60.

  10. Arthur Says:

    When will women like Judith Warner be satisfied? Judith is not a single mother living in poverty, so she feels as if domestic responsibilties are beneathe her and other successful modern women. She says in her latest editorial: “The outside world has changed enormously for women in these past 40 years. But home life? Think about it. Who routinely unloads the dishwasher, puts away the laundry and picks up the socks in your house? Who earns the largest share of the money? Who calls the shots?” Oh, heaven forbid if a woman has to unload th dishwasher! My God, this is the Age of the Woman! Women now comprise almost 60% of students enrolled in our nation’s universities. The myth that women earn less than men is just that – a myth, because those statistics are primarily taken from lower-paying jobs like teaching (where women drastically outnumber men). Men, on the other hand, are usually the victims in divorce – there is no dispute that women are usually the initiators of divorce and are usually awarded custody of children, as well as a significant portion of the man’s assets. Women like Warner are the reason that so many men tremble in fear at the thought of marriage. What is the point? To live happily for a few years, have children, and then have your wife leave you because she is so “unfullfilled”. We can thanks people like Warner and other feminists who fill women’s minds with so much garbage that they could not possibly be happy unless they have a husband who makes $1 million a year, worships the ground she walks on, and is also willing to unload the dishwasher. I, on the other hand, give women more credit. They are smart enough not to fall for these types of editorials. I know many realize this type of thinking is deeply rooted in radical feminism, where men are always villians and women are entitled to a life of total bliss and no responsibilities, simply because they are women. So please Judith, go unload the dishwasher and be thankful that you are not living in poverty, not putting your life on the line in Iraq, and having the forum of the biggest newspaper in the country to whine about your domestic chores. I’m sure Jane Doe, a single black mother with 5 children who lives in the slums of Anytown, USA, will feel for you….

  11. amy Says:

    Arthur, women also disproportionately hold low-wage jobs precisely because they’re viewed as responsible for children & therefore not free to hold professional, demanding jobs. And frequently it’s true. The women are responsible disproportionately for the children, and as I’ve noted here before, they’re far less free to simply walk away from the children, even where they’re willing. The social and career consequences can be devastating if they try it, because they’re viewed as monsters in ways that men are not when they walk away.
    I somehow cannot muster sympathy for your fear that a woman might leave a man to go be happier elsewhere, esp. when there are so many serious problems in the world, like poverty and lives on the line in Iraq.
    Jennifer, I have no problem with prorating salary/benefits for part-time work. No problem, even, with a discount or tax credit to account for increased managerial oversight with a larger part-time workforce.

  12. Christine Says:

    As usual Arthur’s comments have proven feminists correct on how clueless men are about women’s struggles. I highly doubt there is a 60% female student body at the top engineering and science institutions of higher learning. To quote Dave Chappelle, people don’t understand until they have been deprived of something that others take for granted. He speaks of racism, but I think it correlates to gender-discrimination. A friend of mine attended a lottery for affordable housing and a man rudely and loudly commented on all the women there. Another example of a man clueless about the financial struggles of women. Even if women are unhappy in homelife and instigate divorce (which is highly unlikely as a large percentage), why can’t men change for the marriage? The answer is they have it too good. Why clean a house, cook and raise children if someone else is willing? Or is it based on masculinity issues? Not to judge, but Arthur sounds like someone who would go the mail-order bride route not to deal with an intelligent, strong, and ambitous American woman.

  13. Christine Says:

    Forgot to mention – I have often wondered this: are teachers (K-12) paid less proportinately due to the fact that the industry is female dominant? Arthur, you bring up teaching, but why is it so low-paying if such a high education level is to be attained (Bachelors, masters and in some cases Ph.D)?

  14. Rebel Dad Says:

    Vexing Questions

    Last week, Elizabeth at Half Changed World asked a tough question: how will men break through the domestic glass ceiling? Elizabeth isn’t sure that will ever happen…
    I’m more optimistic.

  15. tragula Says:

    I think focusing on dad’s role as a parent is the key. We need to convince more of them to make the choice to stay home with the kids. Many men don’t even realize they have this option. Mass media like TV and the internet are the critical tools. They shape the public’s perception of what is normal. To a certain degree the trendsetters in the inner cities are already making these choices in significant numbers. If they are provided more encouragement, other dad’s will follow in their shoes.
    To a certain extent I think the housework issue only confuses things. Bottom line: in a busy household the dirty work is often going to be done by whichever partner has the lowest tolerance for grime.

  16. amy Says:

    Christine, they’re paid that little because they’re willing to take it, and I suspect more women than men are willing to settle. I imagine that’s also why you find a much higher percentage of men in K-12 administration; the money’s better & so’s the prestige.
    That’s a mad amount of work they do for almost no money. The unfortunate consequence is that you don’t get the brighter women teaching K-12. Someone on another board pointed out that ed-school candidates come consistently from the bottom quartile of college graduates. (And I know there are bright, well-educated public-school teachers out there. I know. They just strike me as unusual. More usual was the maddening high-decibel teacher conversation I was treated to in the coffeeshop yesterday while trying to read: “I don’t care how much money we don’t have, we’re going to Vegas!” Terrific. Teach my kid, why don’t you.)
    Tragula, staying home with kids frequently amounts to career and financial suicide. Why would you want to convince more men — presumably men you like — to take this risk?

  17. tragula Says:

    Well, personally I view the career side as the short end of the stick. I think there are plenty of men out there who would choose to take care of the domestic side of things, over the clock punching, rat race. The only thing I think they may need convincing of is that there is nothing wrong with a father making this choice. After all, women are viewed as having choices, so why not men? Staying home may not be prestiguous for either gender, but there is no reason it should be “stigmatized” for men.
    Now, I’m not sure what you mean by financial suicide. There are plenty of moms out there who out-earn their husbands, making the dad the smart choice for the at home role. Two incomes is better for some families, but for many the second income doesn’t cover the cost of quality childcare. And of course some parents just make staying home with the kids a priority, in spite of any financial sacrifice.

  18. amy Says:

    tragula, I’m talking about financial suicide for the stay-home spouse, not the family.
    I don’t want to rehash, but you might start with books that talk about the financial and career consequences of stay=home stints, and if you’ve got the stomach for it, search online for internal reviews in various professions. I don’t plan on spending life in a cube either, but the short end of the stick that I’m talking about is having no money, a withering resume, and limited earning power. If you want to be trapped as a dependent spouse, or a poor single parent, try having no ability to support yourself and your children.
    It can be very difficult, careerwise, to come back from even a brief stint at home. That’s not something to toss off lightly with “oh, well, what’s really important?” You’re talking about the loss of hireability, independence, earning power, retirement saving, work satisfaction. The higher-pressure the career you walk away from, the harder it is to come back; you’ll carry the stigma of “not serious” for many years. And of course you’re competing with younger, more energetic, less-burdened graduates while carrying a hole in your resume where expertise and connections should be.
    Before admiring parents who stay home despite any financial sacrifice, also consider what kind of loan burden their kids are likely to walk out of college with, and what it might be like for the kids to care for their aging parents (or refuse to) while trying to work and raise their own children. That doesn’t strike me as a nice present to give your kids.

  19. tragula Says:

    I wonder why it’s always career parents having this kind of discussion? There are plenty of people out there working at starbucks or the bookstore, who never have to worry about flushing a six figure salary down the toilet when they have kids.
    The underlying issues in these debates are lifestyle and status. And for some people a certain lifestyle and a certain amount of status are non-negotiable. Others are content to get by on less, and spend more time with their kids if they can. To each their own.
    The curious paradox is that everyone is struggling to keep their financial heads above water while swimming in a sea of historically unimaginable wealth and creature comforts. If everyone would just agree to collectively lower the bar a little bit life might be a lot easier :)

  20. amy Says:

    tragula, you talk like a non-parent, or like a parent who’s happy to see her kids drift with fate. This isn’t about lifestyle and status; it’s about the kind of insurance that means you don’t hit the lifetime max when your kid needs a liver transplant.
    It’s also about knowing that your kid can have some choices after college to do what she loves instead of walking out as an indentured servant to college debt. And sparing your kid the terrible choices and burdens that come in their midlives when you’ve neglected to take care of your own retirement. Go talk sometime to people trying to raise kids while taking care of their broke sick parents. It’s a cruel life.
    I spent many years making espresso and working in bookstores. It’s fine if you don’t have any kids. I could’ve lived like that for another 40 years, with no kids. You’re not sending anyone to college, and if you’re poor in the end, who cares? Have kids and you suddenly have responsibilities that $7/hr and day-old scones don’t cover.
    You may be seeing a correlation with “career parents” because having a career requires the same kind of planning and execution that covering your kids does.
    You also seem to neglect the idea that some people really love their work, rather than the goodies that may come with it, and that it might not be worth staying home fulltime for two years if it means being relegated to a career backwater for the next 15 or 20.
    The whole argument is, I think, unnecessary. Make the part-time prorated professional work easier to offer, and I think the problem solves itself in all but the most aggressive & high-flying circles.

  21. tragula Says:

    Hmm. I think you misunderstood me a bit. I think it’s important and necessary for one parent to have a serious job, with insurance and prospects and the best possible income. In my case that would be my wife, who loves her job.
    I don’t really understand the insinuation that non-career parents are bad parents. For centuries moms stayed home with the kids and did not pursue careers, and I think it’s a bit bold to suggest that they were being irresponsible in some way. I personally think it’s as possible for families to get by on one income today as it has ever been. People are simply more reluctant to do so because they don’t want to give up their careers. Notice the word “want.” Many people are so attached to their careers that they will continue working at a financial loss, because their income won’t fully cover childcare for one or two young kids.
    Now, I agree with you that more flexible job would be a big help for everyone. It shouldn’t be too hard to set up that kind of corporate environment. You’d think companies would love it, as they don’t have to cover part timers with health insurance, one of their biggest expenses.

  22. Elizabeth Says:

    I don’t want to “convince more men to stay home” — I don’t think it’s the right choice for all families any more than I think having a SAHM is the right choice for all families — but I do want to convince more men to *consider* staying home. In a lot of families, the only options that are considered are “we’re both going to work” or “mom is going to stay home.”
    Amy, as I wrote recently, sure, having a parent stay out of the work force is a risk. So is trying to make a living as a writer. Or working for campaigns, where you know no job is going to last more than a year. Or starting your own business. I think it’s outrageous to suggest that a good parent wouldn’t take these kinds of risks.
    P, Mahony’s website hasn’t been updated in a while, but it’s at: http://www.stanford.edu/~rmahony/index.html It looks like she was mostly focusing on civil rights issues the last time she updated.

  23. amy Says:

    I’m a writer. I wouldn’t attempt to raise a kid as a writer unless there was some nice money coming from elsewhere. That’s why, with the loss of the husband as stable breadwinner, I’m refashioning myself as an academic/administrator. Is it unnatural to me? Sure. I’m not an academic, never wanted to be one. But I want even less to leave my daughter in some fairly predictable ugly positions.
    I’m not saying taking those other risky jobs is irresponsible by definition, but I will call it irresponsible if the parent hasn’t already safeguarded some level of savings and income before taking on the instability. Otherwise you’re gambling with your kids’ money. Beyond that, campaign work is a resume-builder and can be parlayed into more; so can business-starting.
    If I hadn’t been willing or able to step up from bookstore clerk, my choice would’ve been, “don’t have kid; you can’t afford kid even in your nice inexpensive town.” (Tragula, there are many good texts about why today’s parental-care burden is not like the burden of yesteryear, which was in any case romanticized and minimized.)
    Am I saying “do not have a child unless everything is battened down and the child is 400% safe”? Of course not. There’s no certainty like that in life. What you can do, though, is stack the odds. And if you’re not willing to look ahead, see fairly predictable expenses and obstacles for the kid, weigh their import, thoughtfully & rationally define “acceptable,” and prepare accordingly, then sure, I think that’s irresponsible.
    You can teach them to eat Cheetos all day, too, and raise them innocent of toothbrushing. Just decide not to think about what it might mean for their health at 45, decide it’s just freaked out hippie-yuppie-moms who fuss over food and teeth, and that people would be a lot happier if they just relaxed and ate something tasty from a bag. I don’t think that’s very different from deciding to ignore reasonably predictable financial & caregiving burdens coming a poor kid’s way.

  24. amy Says:

    Hmm. I think you misunderstood me a bit. I think it’s important and necessary for one parent to have a serious job, with insurance and prospects and the best possible income.
    That’s great, so long as the marriage stays happy; the breadwinner stays nice, healthy and sane; and the stay-home parent genuinely likes being home. If any one of those fails after the dependent parent’s been out a while, then at the very least, the dependent parent is in trouble.

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