Why Gender Equality Stalled
Stephanie Coontz has an op-ed in the New York Times. She is the author two of the most interesting books that I have ever read — Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage and The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. Her op-ed reminds me of an excerpt from Marriage, A History where she discusses marital tensions and says: “If they had thought about the broader picture, these men and women would probably have agreed that the real problem was the lack of work policies amenable to family life. But in practice their daily tensions turned them on each other rather than on their employers” (p. 261).
Here are some excerpts from the New York Times:
Today the main barriers to further progress toward gender equity no longer lie in people’s personal attitudes and relationships. Instead, structural impediments prevent people from acting on their egalitarian values, forcing men and women into personal accommodations and rationalizations that do not reflect their preferences. The gender revolution is not in a stall. It has hit a wall
Astonishingly, despite the increased workload of families, and even though 70 percent of American children now live in households where every adult in the home is employed, in the past 20 years the United States has not passed any major federal initiative to help workers accommodate their family and work demands. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 guaranteed covered workers up to 12 weeks unpaid leave after a child’s birth or adoption or in case of a family illness. Although only about half the total work force was eligible, it seemed a promising start. But aside from the belated requirement of the new Affordable Care Act that nursing mothers be given a private space at work to pump breast milk, the F.M.L.A. turned out to be the inadequate end.
Meanwhile, since 1990 other nations with comparable resources have implemented a comprehensive agenda of “work-family reconciliation” acts. As a result, when the United States’ work-family policies are compared with those of countries at similar levels of economic and political development, the United States comes in dead last.
Is it any surprise that American workers express higher levels of work-family conflict than workers in any of our European counterparts? Or that women’s labor-force participation has been overtaken? In 1990, the United States ranked sixth in female labor participation among 22 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is made up of most of the globe’s wealthier countries. By 2010, according to an economic research paper by Cornell researchers Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn, released last month, we had fallen to 17th place, with about 30 percent of that decline a direct result of our failure to keep pace with other countries’ family-friendly work policies. American women have not abandoned the desire to combine work and family. Far from it. According to the Pew Research Center, in 1997, 56 percent of women ages 18 to 34 and 26 percent of middle-aged and older women said that, in addition to having a family, being successful in a high-paying career or profession was “very important” or “one of the most important things” in their lives. By 2011, fully two-thirds of the younger women and 42 percent of the older ones expressed that sentiment.
Women are still paid less than men at every educational level and in every job category. They are less likely than men to hold jobs that offer flexibility or family-friendly benefits. When they become mothers, they face more scrutiny and prejudice on the job than fathers do.
So, especially when women are married to men who work long hours, it often seems to both partners that they have no choice. Female professionals are twice as likely to quit work as other married mothers when their husbands work 50 hours or more a week and more than three times more likely to quit when their husbands work 60 hours or more.
The sociologist Pamela Stone studied a group of mothers who had made these decisions. Typically, she found, they phrased their decision in terms of a preference. But when they explained their “decision-making process,” it became clear that most had made the “choice” to quit work only as a last resort — when they could not get the flexible hours or part-time work they wanted, when their husbands would not or could not cut back their hours, and when they began to feel that their employers were hostile to their concerns. Under those conditions, Professor Stone notes, what was really a workplace problem for families became a private problem for women.
Our goal should be to develop work-life policies that enable people to put their gender values into practice. So let’s stop arguing about the hard choices women make and help more women and men avoid such hard choices. To do that, we must stop seeing work-family policy as a women’s issue and start seeing it as a human rights issue that affects parents, children, partners, singles and elders. Feminists should certainly support this campaign. But they don’t need to own it.