News reports on women in the workplace typically highlight the tough decisions mothers face—when push comes to shove, should we put our careers, or our families, first?
Mothers in professional and managerial jobs are a receptive market for the career-coaching industry, which offers practical guidance on career planning, time management and setting personal boundaries as the key to work-life balance. Although individual success stories are cited as proof that women can indeed “have it all,” most U.S. mothers find themselves between a rock and a hard place when it comes to holding down a job and caring for their families. While women in mid- and upper-level professional positions may have some discretion over their daily work hours and are more likely than other women workers to have paid time off for family emergencies, a study by economist Heather Boushey found that fully two-thirds of employed mothers do not have enough job flexibility to meet their care-giving and personal needs.
Workplace culture and practices—from the rise of extreme jobs as the new executive norm to the chronic inflexibility of lower-wage working conditions—have contributed to the work-life squeeze for workers across the board. But unlike other industrial nations, the United States does little to protect the health and economic security of working families—and historically, has been especially resistant to public policies supporting maternal employment.
How bad is it? A report from the Institute for Health and Social Policy at McGill University shows the U.S. lagging behind all wealthy nations, as well as many middle- and low-income countries, on policies to assure the health and well-being of workers and families. For example:
For millions of working parents, these policy shortfalls mean having to choose between leaving a sick child home alone or losing a day’s pay (or getting fired). For women in the professional sector, fall-out from the motherhood penalty is usually more subtle. Nevertheless, maternity remains a significant drag factor on women’s earnings and employment outcomes -- a phenomenon work-life researchers call “hitting the maternal wall.” If managers and co-workers interpret a mother’s request to work fewer or more flexible hours as a lack of commitment, she may find her promising career sidelined on a less rewarding “mommy track.” Or employers may assume a mother with young children will pass up a promotion requiring overnight travel and offer the plum assignment to someone with less experience (and fewer family responsibilities). Legal experts note the recent increase in litigation resulting from employer discrimination against workers with caregiving responsibilities, a pattern known as “family responsibilities discrimination,” or FRD. FRD can be as blatant as a supervisor telling a worker she can either be a good employee or a good mother but not both at the same time, or as insidious as reassigning a talented achiever to a dead-end job when she returns from maternity leave.
Women have come a long way in the workplace, but the combined effects of family-unfriendly social policy, outdated management models favoring control over flexibility, and entrenched attitudes about gender roles create substantial barriers to mothers’ occupational advancement and long-term economic security. The net effect is more women and children living in poverty and lacking health care coverage in the U.S. than in any other economically developed nation. Mothers are particularly vulnerable to hardship when they are single, widowed or divorced, or when a spouse is unemployed. If you think the causes and consequences of America’s motherhood problem are irrelevant to mothers who manage to stay on the corporate leadership track, think again. Every mother is affected, and most are at risk.
Our society relies on mothers, fathers, grandparents and other adults to provide the continuous stream of care children need to stay healthy and grow well, and to assist our elderly with daily life needs. Our economy depends on women’s labor force participation in every industry sector. The suggestion that women who want to stay on top of their professional game should simply forgo motherhood or have only one child discounts women’s rights and humanity, and has little bearing for the vast majority of working women whose jobs will never convey special status or social power. (And needless to say, similar advice is rarely directed to professionally ambitious men.) Individual bargaining can only take us so far. It’s time to level the playing field.
What can working mothers do? Support advocacy organizations and legislators committed to bringing U.S. health and employment policy into the 21st century. At a minimum, an effective array of work-life policies will include universal health care coverage, 12 to 24 weeks of paid family and medical leave, a guarantee of at least seven paid sick days for all workers, imposing a cap on mandatory overtime, strengthening equal pay laws to include part-time workers and require active enforcement of the Equal Pay Act, and assure that every family who wants and needs it has access to affordable high-quality child and elder care.
Will these reforms be costly? Yes. But not as costly to women and families—and ultimately, our society—as sticking to business as usual.
About the Author
Judith Stadtman Tucker is the founder and editor of the Mothers’ Movement Online, a web site offering resources and reporting for mothers and others who think about social change.