Gender noncomformity

The American Prospect has a special report out on work-family issues which has a bunch of interesting articles.  Brian at RebelDad has posted quick comments on a couple of them already.

Not in the print edition, but online, the Prospect has added a response by Linda Hirshman.  While she is, as usual, gratuitously obnoxious toward anyone she disagrees with, she does make a point that I think is on target:

"even if by some miracle male employers could be
persuaded to enact the reforms discussed, without a real change in
women’s attitudes about the family most of the effect would be to make
it easier for women to continue to bear their excessive share of an
unjust household. And allow the women to think they chose it!"

In their discussion of a recent conference on Rethinking Gender Egalitarianism, Laura at 11d and Harry at Crooked Timber responded to a similar point made at the conference — that things like paid parental leave are an obstacle to gender egalitarianism, because they are disproportionately taken by mothers rather than fathers.  Laura and Harry argue that parenting is not a "shit job" (as Hirshman clearly believes), but rather a source of great fulfillment for many people and that if barriers are removed, men will voluntarily take on more domestic responsibilities and joys.

I don’t think parenting is a shit job, or one that makes your brain rot.  But I also think that it’s almost certainly true that absent a massive societal shift or highly prescriptive government policy, family friendly policies probably would increase the gender gap.  Because, as Rhona Mahoney explains, every choice you make changes the hand that you have when you make the next set of decisions.  And unless we get to the point that working fewer hours or taking time off from work has zero career cost (which seems unlikely anytime soon), it’s always going to make sense for the person who has already stepped off the fast track to be the one to accommodate the other’s career.  And because of both biology (pregnancy and breastfeeding) and gender ideology, the one taking that first step off is far more likely to be a woman. 

Mahoney also makes the interesting suggestion that this is a tipping point phenomenon; e.g that if SAHDs were more common, more men would make that choice.  And on that note, I have to point out the Colbert report piece on SAHDs.  (And a look behind the scenes.)

5 Responses to “Gender noncomformity”

  1. Andrea Says:

    I’ve seen this argument a lot, but I disagree. Here in the Land of the One Year Maternity Leave, the statistics for women in employment, including executive and leadership positions, are nearly identical to south of the border.
    I think it’s because a one-year mat leave w/ a guaranteed job back at the end makes it safe to take that year. You don’t have to decide at six weeks whether you’re going to quit or put your baby in daycare. Speaking from personal experience, if I’d had to go back at six weeks, I would have quit–Frances was a preemie and at six weeks old was developmentally still a newborn; she had reflux and wouldn’t take bottles; there was no way I could have gone back to work before nine months (when she decided bottles weren’t the antichrist).
    As it was, I didn’t have to make that choice, and rejoined the career track exactly where I left it. No pay hit, no seniority hit. It makes stepping off the fast track, for a while, risk-free. Or, at least, very-very-low-risk.

  2. Elizabeth Says:

    Andrea, you work for the government, right? My guess that outside of the government sector, there’s more of a hit for taking time off. (I remember reading somewhere that in Sweden, women are massively overrepresented in the public sector (and conversely under-represented in business). And even when I worked for the government here in the US, it was pretty hard to get promoted past a certain point if you worked part-time.

  3. Jeremy Adam Smith Says:

    I happen to be reading Rhona Mahony’s book right now; I can’t recommend it highly enough. My big question is, whatever happened to Rhona Mahony? She seemed to disappear from public view after Kidding Ourselves came out and her twins were born, which is a shame. My google search didn’t turn up anything recent.
    I don’t disagree that “family friendly policies probably would increase the gender gap” — there’s evidence that this is exactly what happened in the Scandanavian social democracies. But what can we as Americans do with that information?
    One implication is that we should put the emphasis on cultural and social activism that pushes the parallel ideas of male caregiving and female economic empowerment. In the absence of significant power on the national level, this is what people (like us!) have done, and the progress has been slow but sure. Personally, I’ll take what I can get. Looked at over decades, women have advanced in the workplace. Men as a group have dramatically increased the time they spend on childcare and housework. As the Colbert piece illustrates, attitudes are changing and caregiving fathers are becoming more and more a part of the landscape, though the numbers remain very small. (I don’t agree with commentators at Rebeldad who say Colbert is insulting SAHDs.)
    But I feel like we can’t lose sight of changing state-level and federal policy on families — that’s the prize. It’s important to note that social democratic countries are tinkering with their family policies in an effort to get men to stay home and women to go to work more–with some results. It’s still too early to call, but in the UK, for example, the time fathers spend with children has increased dramatically, while Sweden has increased mommy workforce participation.
    See http://greatergoodscience.blogspot.com/2007/01/some-thoughts-on-family-policy.html for some links and more comments on this.

  4. reuben Says:

    Doesn’t it depend on what you mean by ‘gender gap’? If your aim is for mothers and fathers to be able to do meaningful, remunerative work, but still spend significant amounts of time with their children, then I don’t see how you can argue that family friendly legislation increases the gender gap. It may increase occupational segregation, but that isn’t the same thing (though it is certainly part of the equation). Mothers in Denmark and Sweden take far less significant hits to their career trajectories and paychecks than do mothers in countrie with less ‘family friendly’ legislation – and this is particularly true for mothers of 2+ children. There is also less of a gender pay gap in Denmark and Sweden. I would argue that occupational segregation, while important, is less meaningful than the income gap. I would also argue that the willingness of some to argue that in Sweden mums can have a job but not a career (as, I think, Newsweek put it last year) is predicated on the false notion that real careers are only to be found in the private sector. I also think that no one can in good faith argue that mothers’ and fathers’ life trajectories in terms of employment aren’t more similar in Scandinavia than in the US or other countries with fewer family friendly policies. Yes, there is still loads of gender differentiation in Sweden, but there is less there than in the US in every metric, I think, except for the percentage of stay at home dads, which is higher in the US due to the extreme difficulties of combining two good careers with childrearing.
    All that being said, the Scandinavian ‘solution’ (which is imperfect, but still, I believe, far better than what happesn in the US) is predicated on a very large public sector providing family friendly jobs. And in the US, that ain’t gonna happen.
    I do think Elizabeth’s point about promotion is a good one. In any country, the people who put in longer hours tend to be the ones who go the furthest. But just as in the US this can lead to non-traditional families choosing to have the father be a stay at home dad, in Scandinavia the same families can opt for the mother being more career focused and the father working in the public sector, no?

  5. dave s Says:

    “..make your brain rot..” – some jobs, if you’re not pushing the edge forward, you are nowhere. And if one of those is what you’ve trained for, if you’re not doing it pretty much every waking moment, you’re left behind. Some parts of pharma research, some parts of software work. Also, some jobs are dependent on constant practice – I mentioned in a previous post that when my wife was looking for a cancer surgeon, she looked for someone who had done thousands of operations (so far results are good). Some jobs, the wider your network, the easier it is to make it work. So if you are in one of those areas, you will do markedly less well for your self and for your company/lab/agency if you work a reduced schedule. And the professors who trained you/ your mentors etc will feel they’ve poured effort into a low performer. That’s the Hirshman argument, in I think a less gratuitously nasty form. To the extent that people who don’t put out 120% effort are women, she’s not wrong.
    I think it’s okay that those people need wives, if they’re going to have families at all. It’s, as reuben notes, in no way a given that those wives need to be women. The gents can be the stay-at-homers, or part-timers. There are also lots of perfectly nice careers which don’t make that kind of demands: zoning inspector. Wills-and-divorces lawyers. Insurance sales. Realtor. Hirshman’s real problem, in my view, is that she doesn’t concede the legitimacy of womens’ choices not to try and get into the forefront of AIDS research, etc. And she pretty much utterly ignores the world of folks who work at Wal-Mart or 7/11, and for whom work is hourly, for either partner.

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