Archive for the ‘Work-family choices’ Category

Cross-national perspective — answers

Wednesday, July 9th, 2008

Last month, I asked for questions to pose to Ariane Hegewisch about her report on cross-national perspectives on workplace flexibility.  Here, at last, are some answers.  The delay is entirely my fault — she was extremely prompt in responding when I sent them to her.

bj had wondered, "I thought the low proportions of women in private sector employment in
countries like Germany was well documented. Perhaps that’s not college
educated women? Not in the private sector?"

Ariane responds:

Germany does
not have a huge public sector, and women are not predominantly working in
the public sector. Incidentally, this is partly because Germany does not have
well developed state services for children and eldercare, and does not have a
big state healthcare system. Germany is is probably almost as different from
Sweden as it is from the USA. Sweden on the other hand does have a big public
sector (which provides many of the services done in the private sector in the
US- such as childcare, aftercare and eldercare), and women are much more likely
to work in the public sector than in the private sector. Sweden also has high
birth rates, whereas Germany has very low ones.

Christine asked about discrimination: "Did they expect discrimination would follow regarding the hiring of
women of child-bearing years? What are governments with mandated
workplace flexibility doing to combat hiring discrimination? Have there
been studies done to compare discrimination against fathers that are
mandated to follow family leave policies vs. mothers?"

Ariane answers:

First, there is a bit of a confusion between ‘flexible working
rights’ and leave / work-family policies more generally. A 3 year job protected
parental leave period [as is available in Germany] is different from the right to work that leave on a
part-time basis (one is likely to reduce your employability, while the other one
is designed to maintain it).

years job protected parental leave is a considerable disincentive for
employers; Germany continues to have a very conservative climate for motherhood-
a lot of pressure coming from mothers and fathers, about what they think a ‘good
mother’ should look like. Germans have reacted to this with having one of the
lowest birth rates in the EU- there is a very stark choice between careers and
parenthood, and many women opt out altogether. This was not created by the
law- but the parental leave rights and social expectations mutually
re-enforce each other.

Now- looking at German flexibility rights in this
context- they are in fact designed to reduce that long gap, by making it easier
for parents to come back to work on a part-time bases earlier, instead of
staying out of the labor market altogether for three years, and by making it possible to
work in better part-time jobs (Germany has very high proportion of very low
quality part-time jobs). And they are deliberately open to all employees and all
circumstances (even though parents are the most likely to avail themselves of
these rights) to reduce the ‘mommy track’ association.

Now, on the other hand if you take
Denmark: here, working hours have come down for men and women (so that full-time
work is more combinable with care responsibilities); parents are able to have a
period of part-time work as part of their parental leave, which gets them back
to work faster. Part-time work overall has been falling, as people are more
likely to treat it as a short transitional period (for care or education).
And the pay gap is very low. (Although as always, this is because Denmark
overall has low pay differentiation, not just between men and

The discriminatory effect of a flexible working right
will depend on how far it is possible to spread the right in practice beyond
women as primary caregivers. This is a key policy design issue (not just law,
but also in terms of other supportive measures). Hence it has to be linked to
rights for male carers (as is the FMLA, and that ‘gender neutral’ design is
common to almost all laws), but also should be broadened away from
flexible working specifically for family care (as is done in the Netherlands,
Germany, France etc: where you can apply for change if you want to volunteer in
the community on the same basis as if you want to look after your toddler).

Flexible working rights at least in some countries were introduced because it
was clear that women were already much more likely to ‘work flexibly’ but had to
accept really bad working conditions for it. So flexible working rights were
introduce to lessen the discriminatory effects of the need to work flexibly.

She also notes:

There is discrimination now in the USA : pregnancy
discrimination has spiked; women systematically have different working patterns
from men; women are twice as likely as men to work part-time; women’s lifetime
earnings are markedly lower than men’s for these reasons. However, this facet of
gender discrimination is much less well recognised in the US than elsewhere. As
Joan Williams always says: the USA is a great place for women who work
like the ideal man (always, all-the-time); but it is a lousy place for women(and
men) who for any reason are unable or unwilling to do so.  Many women
would like to spend some time with their children when they are young; however
full-time working requirements are such that this can be very
hard.  And, if you have more than one child, childcare costs are such,
that economic incentives to look after your kids yourself are enornous. So:
flexible working is only one spike in the work life wheel, but one that is being
neglected in the USA. (It is a fair question whether flexible working rights on
their own will be able to achieve anything much without well established
part-time equity rights; better childcare; paid leave; and a better enforcement
environment generally for labor rights).

As I had mentioned in the post, I was stunned by Figure 1, which
reported that US college educated women had the lowest labor force participation rates of any country
in the study (even though the more educated US women are, the more likely they
are to work).  But Table 1 says that if you look at all women, the US is
the middle of the pack.  So, I asked, does that imply that more educated women’s LFP is
more sensitive to these policy choices than less educated women’s?

Ariane replies:

We were surprised by this table too, so are still somewhat
speculating as to the reasons. In the US, as in other countries, highly
educated women are more likely to be employed as those with less qualifications.
However, because of the lower level of welfare support, poorer women have less
options of staying out of the workforce, and single mothers are much more likely
to be in work than elsewhere. Hence labor force participation differs less
between educational groups in the US thgan in many other countries. (And: it is
perhaps less that college ed women are more sensitive to work family policies
elsewhere, but that non-college ed women are given fewer options for not

Second reason for the
international differences is probably that the US has the highest proportion of
college ed. women; for example in Portugal- only 9% of women have tertiary
qualifications, in the US is it 38%. In that sense, to go for a degree you
probably are pretty determined and work educated in the first place, and less
likely to drop out later, than in the US where a much broadfer range of women
get college degrees. (The US has the highest level, but Sweden and Finland are
not far off).

Third: More women in the US
are college educated, and overall more women have kids (even though the US
shares the general trend that college ed women are less likely to have kids, or
have fewer kids, than other women), so (even though we do not have the figures)
I would imagine that the proportion of college educated women with more than one
kid is higher in the US than elsewhere).

My great thanks to Ariane for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully.

Brutal commutes

Thursday, June 12th, 2008

The Metro Orange line has been a mess all week — several serious delays, and terrible overcrowding even when the trains are running.  When I got to the station yesterday morning, the platform was so crowded that they had to stop the escalator to make sure no one was pushed onto the tracks.  And the air conditioning in my car seems to be dead, so I’m soaked in sweat by the time I get home.  It’s only taking a little longer than usual, but it’s really taking the stuffing out of me.

The scary thing is that it’s only going to get worse if the price of gas makes more people switch to the train.  They can buy some more cars to run more 8-car trains, but that only adds a limited amount of capacity.  I can work from home sometimes, but usually not more than once a week.  Maybe I should talk to my boss about working 7-3.30 or something.

Cross-national perspective

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

Ariane Hegewisch and Janet Gornick have a new report out on what countries other than the US are doing to mandate workplace flexibility.  It’s all quite astonishing from the US perspective, but I’m honestly most surprised by the statistic that the US has the lowest labor force participation rate for college-educated prime-age women of any of the countries studied.  That’s a pretty strong response to the claim that "no one will hire women" in Europe because of the social protections.    It also makes it hard to believe that US women’s labor force participation has hit its "natural limits" and can’t possibly go any higher.

Ariane said that she might be up for being "interviewed" on this blog — what questions would you like to ask her?

Paid parental leave for feds

Thursday, May 8th, 2008

Just wanted to give a heads up that HR 5781, which would provide federal employees with 4 weeks of paid parental leave, is headed to the House floor for a vote next week.   (If you read the bill text at that link, it will say it’s 8 weeks of paid leave, but it was cut to 4 weeks in committee.)  Outside of the DC area, this probably hasn’t gotten much attention, so it’s worth dropping your Representative a line to encourage support.

I used to be a fed, and lots of people were shocked when I told them that I didn’t get any paid maternity leave.  The feds generally provide good benefits, so everyone assumes that they provide parental leave.  They don’t — and they don’t have any sort of short-term disability program, either — although you can use any annual leave (vacation) or sick leave that you’ve accrued.  The problem is that while long-term federal employees often have months and months of sick leave accrued up, most of the people who have babies aren’t long-term employees (since the federal government hires very few 12 year olds).  By hoarding my leave days carefully, and working up to the day I went into labor, I was able to take 12 weeks off with pay when I had D.  When I had N, less than 3 years later, there was no way I could have saved up enough leave — and I was better off than most second-time parents, as T was staying home with D, so I didn’t have to use up sick days when he was sick.

So, this bill both makes parenting significantly more manageable for federal employees, and also puts the federal government on record that parental leave is important.  And it even has a chance of being passed in both Houses.

WBR: Life Work

Wednesday, May 7th, 2008

This week’s book is Life Work, by Donald Hall.  When I agreed to review The Ten Year Nap, the blog tour organizers sent me links to some resources, including a review that said: "In fact, the novel, like poet Donald Hall’s memoir "Life Work," is a
passionate paean to the redeeming power of purposeful occupation."  This sent me off looking for Hall’s book.

Life Work is a short book, really just an extended essay.  In unfussy but eloquent prose, Hall writes about his daily routine, and connects it to the lives of his ancestors, in particular his maternal grandfather, in whose house he lives.  For him, contentment is "work so engrossing that you do not know you are working," what others might call "flow."  He writes about waking up in the morning, wondering if it’s close enough to 5 am that he can reasonably get up and start working on his poems.  He criticizes the idea that only what is paid should be considered valuable.

Hall writes with love about his ancestors, and their work, especially his grandparents who were farmers in a time and place where farmers could still do a bit of everything — raise cows for dairy, chickens for pullets and eggs, maple syrup, enough vegetables to eat year round.  Except for buying store-bought cloth, their lives were closer to the prototype of the Ingalls family than to modern farmers.  And he contrasts them with his father, who spent his life doing the books for his family’s dairy business, and hating every minute of it.

I still can’t decide whether I believe that Hall’s grandparents were as content with their lives of unremitting labor as he makes them out to be.  He writes that his grandmother had planned to be a medical missionary until her mother died, and then she set all those plans aside to keep house for her father and later her husband and children, without a word of complaint.  I think there’s a difference between being not unhappy and being happy, and it’s hard to know where they would have fallen.  And for all of Hall’s romanticization of his grandparents’ lives, he doesn’t have any interest in taking up farming himself, unlike his friend Wendell Berry.

In any case, it’s a lovely little book, filled with Hall’s love for his work, his wife, and his family.

Flexible work and caregiving

Wednesday, April 30th, 2008

I’ve been at a couple of meetings lately where there’s been discussion about flexible work  — both part-time work, and arrangements where people work full-time, but at flexible hours or locations.  And there’s some interesting conversations about whether this discussion should be framed as about caregiving or not.

The arguments against making this a conversation about caregiving are:

  • As long as flexible work is seen as a special privilege or accommodation for a limited population, it will be stigmatized — the mommy track.
  • Moreover, special privileges create resentment among those who don’t get them — this is where you hear the stories from childless workers who complain that their colleagues with kids race out the door at 5.30, and assume that they’re always available to work late.
  • If we truly believe that business should only care what you achieve, not when or where you do it, this should apply to everyone, regardless of the reason they desire flexibility.

Interestingly, I’ve heard that in the United Kingdom, where there’s a right to request flexible working conditions (although the employer is allowed to say no), employers think that it’s awkward that the right is limited to parents of young children — they’d prefer something broader.

The argument on the other side is that we shouldn’t be afraid to say that caregiving is important.  In the US, we often treat having children as a sort of expensive hobby — something that people do for their own pleasure, and that doesn’t incur any societal obligations.  If it takes up all their time and money, they should have known what they were getting into.  So, I have real misgivings about going down a path that says that it doesn’t matter whether you want time off to care for a child or a sick parent or to train for a triathlon, write a novel, or sleep off your hangover.

I see virtues to both arguments.  What do you think?  Both as to whether you think government should be neutral about caregiving, and which approach is more likely to succeed.


Wednesday, April 2nd, 2008

In skimming today’s Washington Post, I saw a short blurb that says that women’s careers are responsible for one-third of corporate relocations, up from 15 percent in 1993.  The study that it’s based on appears to be only available for a hefty fee, so I don’t know how reliable the data are, but if it’s real, that’s a fascinating trend.

In reading Pamela Stone’s book on Opting Out?, I was struck by how often a choice to be the "trailing spouse" in a relocation was the first (unintentional) step down a path that led to women leaving the workforce.  They assumed that their skills were strong enough that they’d have no trouble finding another job, and that was generally true, but often it wasn’t quite as good a job, or they just didn’t have the leverage in the new job to insist on the flexibility they wanted.  Or the relocation put stress on their family, and they wanted to take time to help the kids adjust…

The big question I’d want to know is what the breakdown of relocations by gender is among married couples — my guess is the 32 percent figure includes relocating singles.  If there’s really a big growth in the number of men willing to be a trailing spouse, that’s a bigger indicator of gender equality than the frequently cited stat that 1/3 of wives earn more than their husbands.

The Ten-Year Nap

Monday, March 31st, 2008

Today’s book is The Ten-Year Nap, by Meg Wolitzer.  I’m reviewing it as part of a MotherTalk blog book tour.

The book follows the lives of four stay-at-home mothers who have been friends for years, at a point when they’re sort of re-examining their lives and wondering what happens next.  The book is mostly set in Manhattan, with a nod to a neighboring suburb, and the characters are all the sort of upper-middle class professionals whose life choices wind up as long articles in the New York Times.  But Wolitzer isn’t of this milieu herself, and the book isn’t full of the brand name references that many such books drop in order to establish their accuracy — when brands are mentioned, they’re generally made-up (I think).  She’s less interested in capturing the precise details of the lifestyle than in exploring what drives people to make the choices they do.

I disliked the start of the book: "All around the country, the women were waking up.  Their alarm clocks bleated one by one, making soothing sounds or grating sounds or the stirrings of a favorite song…"  The move from "the women" to a subset of women — those who don’t have to go to work, who aren’t already sitting bleary eyed with a nursing infant as the sun rises — jarred me, and made me ready to dislike the book as a whole.

But I actually mostly enjoyed the book.  Once Wolitzer settles down to the individual characters and stops talking in generalities, her writing skills shine through.  And unlike Rachel Cusk, she seems to have some affection for her characters.  While the plot is fairly thin, and overly driven by random external events, I was perfectly happy to spend a few hours in the company of Amy, Karen and Jill.  (And Roberta, but in thinking over the book, I can’t remember any of the sections from her perspective…)

I noticed in this interview in the NY Times last week that Wolitzer said "I’m not writing the Big Book o’ Motherhood and Work."  I think that’s a bit disingenuous, as the book has a series of short vignettes of other people’s lives that only fit into the book as quick looks into the role that work plays in people’s lives —  Amy’s mother discovering feminism and her life’s work as a writer,  Nadia Comanici thinking that gymnastics isn’t work at all, someone’s aunt who is an assistant to Margaret Thatcher, feeling like she’s part of something important even as she gets verbally abused, a minor character enjoying the camaraderie and energy of working in a dead end casino job.

At some point in the book one of the characters concludes "work doesn’t make you interesting; interesting work makes you interesting."  One of the strengths of the book is that for all that Wolitzer comes down on the side of work (and I think she does), she also recognizes that most jobs aren’t all that exciting and wonderful.


There’s an interesting discussion of finding your passion going on in the comments on Ask Moxie‘s post on this book.

Spending more time with the family

Friday, February 15th, 2008

"I wanted to spend more time with my family" is the standard cliche of the day for explaining why you quit a high powered job when the real reason is that you were going to be fired if you didn’t get your behind in gear.  Occasionally, it’s actually true.

Matthew Yglesias doesn’t believe that Patti Solis Doyle really quit because of family obligations.  I agree that it would be incredibly unprofessional for her to quit at this stage of the race, and the idea that she’d do it because her six year old said he wanted Daddy is pretty ludicrous.  (Just in case it is true, here’s some unsolicited parenting advice: get over it.  Kids are good at yanking chains, and it doesn’t mean a thing.  T’s been the at-home parent since D was 4 months old, and there are times when the boys demand him and there are times when he might as well be chopped liver.)

The comment thread over there raises some interesting questions.  Is it anti-feminist for her to use this excuse?  Does it make it harder for other woman professionals with small children to be hired into positions of responsibility?  Is it an attempt to play for sympathy with working mothers?  Why go into this level of detail when no one is going to believe you anyway?


Today’s poem on The Writer’s Almanac is "Sestina for the Working Mother" by Deborah Garrison.

Sestina for the Working Mother

No time for a sestina for the working mother.
Who has so much to do, from first thing in the morning
When she has to get herself dressed and the children
Too, when they tumble in the pillow pile rather than listening
To her exhortations about brushing teeth, making ready for the day;
They clamor with "up" hugs when she struggles out the door.

Every time, as if shot from a cannon when she shuts the door.
She stomps down the street in her city boots, slipping from mother
Mode into commuter trance, trees swaying at the corner of a new day
Nearly turned, her familiar bus stop cool and welcoming in the morning.
She hears her own heart here, though no one else is listening,
And if the bus is late she hears down the block the voices of her children

Bobbing under their oversized backpacks to greet other children
At their own bus stop. They too have come flying from the door,
Brave for the journey, and everyone is talking and no one is listening
As they head off to school. The noisy children of the working mother,
Waiting with their sitter for the bus, are healthy and happy this morning.
And that’s the best way, the mother knows, for a day

To begin. The apprehension of what kind of day
It will be in the world of work, blissful without children,
Trembles in the anxious and pleasurable pulse of the morning;
It has tamped her down tight and lit her out the door
And away from what she might have been as a mother
At home, perhaps drinking coffee and listening

To NPR, what rapt and intelligent listening
She’d do at home. And volunteering, she thinks, for part of the day
At their school-she’d be a playground monitor, a PTA mother!
She’d see them straggle into the sunshine, her children
Bright in the slipstream, and she a gracious shadow at the school door;
She would not be separated from them for long by the morning.

But she has chosen her flight from them, on this and every morning.
She’s now so far away she trusts someone else is listening
To their raised voices, applying a Band-Aid, opening the door
For them when the sunshine calls them out into the day.
At certain moments, head bent at her desk, she can see her children,
And feels a quick stab. She hasn’t forgotten that she is their mother.

Every weekday morning, every working day,
She listens to her heart and the voices of her children.
Goodbye! they shout, and the door closes behind the working mother.

Democratic work family proposals compared

Thursday, November 15th, 2007

Since I highlighted Hillary Clinton’s proposals on work-family issues last month, I feel like it’s only fair to point out that John Edwards has released his set of work-family proposals
Obama also touched on these issues in his Reclaiming the American Dream speech last week, but hasn’t gotten into the details as much (at least as far as I’ve been able to find).

Clinton and Edward’s proposals got a lot in common, and both would be a vast improvement over the current policy.  Here’s some of the similarities and differences that jump out at me:

  • Both Clinton and Edwards would make the Family and Medical Leave Act apply to employers with 25 or more employees, down from the 50 employee cut-off that currently applies.  (Obama has said he’d expand it, but I haven’t seen a specific cut-off cited.)
  • All three would provide a minimum guarantee of 7 paid sick days a year.
  • All of them would try to expand paid family leave by providing incentive funds to states that develop state paid leave programs (e.g. like California does now).  Clinton offers $1 billion a year, and sets a goal of having all states adopt a program by 2016.  Edwards offers $2 billion (presumably each year, although that’s not entirely clear from his website) and sets a goal of having everyone covered by 2014.  He also says that tax incentives to businesses wouldn’t count — it would have to be a statewide plan.  Advantage Edwards, I think.
  • Both Clinton and Edwards talk about the need for improved child care and expanded subsidies.  Clinton says she’d increase the Child Care and Development Block Grant (which provides subsidies) and "work with Congress to reform the Dependent Care Tax Credit to address its shortcomings."  Edwards has specific proposals for increasing the amount of the tax credit and making it partially refundable, but doesn’t say anything about CCDBG.  Advantage Clinton.  I just wrote a paper on the subject, and child care credits just don’t work very well for low-income families, even if refundable.  The problem is that you have to be able to afford to lay out the full cost of care up front, and not get paid back until you do your taxes the next year.
  • Both suggest that families with stay-at-home parents should also benefit from child care subsidies. Again, Clinton says this would apply to subsidies under CCDBG, while Edwards talks about the tax credit.  I’m a lot more comfortable applying it to the low-income families who qualify for subsidies than for the full income range.  Also, at that point, I don’t see why you don’t just expand the child tax credit and not force people to document their child care expenses.
  • Obama says he’d double spending on after-school programs.
  • Clinton and Obama both talk about prohibiting discrimination based on parental status, and encouraging flexible scheduling.
  • Edwards talks about benefits for non-traditional workers — contractors, part-time workers, temps — and cracking down on misclassification.

Update:  here are some good comparisons of the proposals from elsewhere: