WTF? American childrearing edition

Profession women friends, do you remember being seduced and inspired by a picture of Licia Ronzulli in the middle of the European parliament wearing her six-week-old-daughter in a sling? No? Let me refresh your memory.

Did you smile and sigh? I did. The smile was for the “you go, woman!” sentiment that came from my gut. And the sigh was for the realization that I’m still having to constantly choose between my career and having children – and that there are no signs that that will change until long after my ovaries have dried up. Hardly a week goes by when I don’t catch another career vs. family discussion. The prospects are especially stark in fields like academic science and corporate management, where ridiculously long work hours are an expectation and culture and incentives change at an evolutionary, not a revolutionary pace.

But let’s not forget that anti-parenting workplace culture isn’t just a workaholic problem; it’s an American problem. Here’s another picture that puts American mothers in their place:
The US is one of only eight countries in the world without a paid maternity leave policy.

Are you, too, feeling your hopes and dreams for a family and a career drip away like menstrual blood as your prime babymaking years zip by with nary a sign that the professional world is becoming less hostile to parenting?

Many of us are channeling our rage and frustration over the persistent gender gap into glass-ceiling talk. But as Stephanie Coontz points out in the NYTimes story that goes with the second image, the remaining barriers to true gender equality are more political and economic than social. That is, we as individual men and women have done much to spread gender equality norms throughout society (note that I’ve had the “>career vs. family conversation with just as many men as women); but we’ve failed to change any of the fundamental rules of the game. We’re trying to live by 2013 values in a world with 1953 workplace incentives. As Coontz writes, we’re now to the point where we’re rationalizing the trap:

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.

Do you find yourself settling for much less than you originally dreamed of as far as career and family are concerned and rationalizing it as a “choice”? We have Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook preaching “Don’t leave before you leave,” with her Harvard economics degree and Facebook COO salary and stock options, and Anne-Marie Slaughter talking about the chicken-or-egg problem of getting more women to the top in a culture where there are few or no realistic paths to having both a great career and a healthy family.

Licia and Vittoria Ronzulli making an appearance in Eurocratland was like Ellen DeGeneres coming out in 1997. Do you remember what a big deal that was? And do you remember Zachary Quinto coming out fourteen years after Ellen did? It was a nonevent. Someday, a father-to-be asking for paid paternal leave will be a nonevent. But that day’s not coming soon enough.

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