Feminism: Work and Family Balance

Feminism: Work and Family Balance

Feminism: Work and Family Balance

The tagline reads “It’s time to stop fooling ourselves, says a woman who left a position of power: the women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, rich, or self-employed. If we truly believe in equal opportunity for all women, here’s what has to change.”

The author goes on to remark:

“A similar assumption underlies Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s widely publicized 2011 commencement speech at Barnard, and her earlier TED talk, in which she lamented the dismally small number of women at the top and advised young women not to “leave before you leave.” When a woman starts thinking about having children, Sandberg said, “she doesn’t raise her hand anymore … She starts leaning back.” Although couched in terms of encouragement, Sandberg’s exhortation contains more than a note of reproach. We who have made it to the top, or are striving to get there, are essentially saying to the women in the generation behind us: “What’s the matter with you?”

They have an answer that we don’t want to hear. After the speech I gave in New York, I went to dinner with a group of 30-somethings. I sat across from two vibrant women, one of whom worked at the UN and the other at a big New York law firm. As nearly always happens in these situations, they soon began asking me about work-life balance. When I told them I was writing this article, the lawyer said, “I look for role models and can’t find any.” She said the women in her firm who had become partners and taken on management positions had made tremendous sacrifices, “many of which they don’t even seem to realize … They take two years off when their kids are young but then work like crazy to get back on track professionally, which means that they see their kids when they are toddlers but not teenagers, or really barely at all.” Her friend nodded, mentioning the top professional women she knew, all of whom essentially relied on round-the-clock nannies. Both were very clear that they did not want that life, but could not figure out how to combine professional success and satisfaction with a real commitment to family.”

“Young women should be wary of the assertion “You can have it all; you just can’t have it all at once.” This 21st-century addendum to the original line is now proffered by many senior women to their younger mentees. To the extent that it means, in the words of one working mother, “I’m going to do my best and I’m going to keep the long term in mind and know that it’s not always going to be this hard to balance,” it is sound advice. But to the extent that it means that women can have it all if they just find the right sequence of career and family, it’s cheerfully wrong.”


“Seeking out a more balanced life is not a women’s issue; balance would be better for us all. Bronnie Ware, an Australian blogger who worked for years in palliative care and is the author of the 2011 book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, writes that the regret she heard most often was “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” The second-most-common regret was “I wish I didn’t work so hard.” She writes: “This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship.””

She concludes:
“I continually push the young women in my classes to speak more. They must gain the confidence to value their own insights and questions, and to present them readily. My husband agrees, but he actually tries to get the young men in his classes to act more like the women—to speak less and listen more. If women are ever to achieve real equality as leaders, then we have to stop accepting male behavior and male choices as the default and the ideal. We must insist on changing social policies and bending career tracks to accommodate our choices, too. We have the power to do it if we decide to, and we have many men standing beside us.

We’ll create a better society in the process, for all women. We may need to put a woman in the White House before we are able to change the conditions of the women working at Walmart. But when we do, we will stop talking about whether women can have it all. We will properly focus on how we can help all Americans have healthy, happy, productive lives, valuing the people they love as much as the success they seek.”

The author asserts:

“When my mind gets stuck on everything that is wrong with feminism, it brings out the 19th century poet in me: Let me count the ways. Most of all, feminism is pretty much a nice girl who really, really wants so badly to be liked by everybody — ladies who lunch, men who hate women, all the morons who demand choice and don’t understand responsibility — that it has become the easy lay of social movements. I am going to smack the next idiot who tells me that raising her children full time — by which she really means going to Jivamukti classes and pedicure appointments while the nanny babysits — is her feminist choice. Who can possibly take feminism seriously when it allows everything, as long as women choose it? The whole point to begin with was that women were losing their minds pushing mops and strollers all day without a room or a salary of their own.

Let’s please be serious grown-ups: real feminists don’t depend on men. Real feminists earn a living, have money and means of their own.”

“And there really is only one kind of equality — it precedes all the emotional hullabaloo — and it’s economic. If you can’t pay your own rent, you are not an adult. You are a dependent. But because feminism has always been about men — our relationships with them, our differences from them — as much or more than about money, it’s had few consistent tenets.”

“I have to admit that when I meet a woman who I know is a graduate of, say, Princeton — one who has read The Second Sex and therefore ought to know better — but is still a full-time wife, I feel betrayed.”

She concludes:
“Hilary Rosen would not have been so quick to be so super sorry for saying that Ann Romney has never worked a day in her life if we weren’t all made more than a wee bit nervous by our own biases, which is that being a mother isn’t really work. Yes, of course, it’s something — actually, it’s something almost every woman at some time does, some brilliantly and some brutishly and most in the boring middle of making okay meals and decent kid conversation. But let’s face it: It is not a selective position. A job that anyone can have is not a job, it’s a part of life, no matter how important people insist it is (all the insisting is itself overcompensation). Even moms with full-time jobs spend 86 percent as much time with their kids as unemployed mothers, so it is apparently taking up the time of about 14 percent of a paid position. And all the cultish glorification of home and hearth still leaves us in a world where most of the people paid to chef and chauffeur in the commercial world are men. Which is to say, something becomes a job when you are paid for it — and until then, it’s just a part of life.”

It is a response to both Slaughter (Women Can’t Have It All) and Wurtzel (1% Wives are Killing Feminism)

“Obviously there are plenty of “real feminists” who don’t earn a paycheck. Obviously there are plenty of people who, because of age or ability or socioeconomic status, are dependent on someone else and are still “real adults.” And obviously stay-at-home wives can be feminists, even if I cock an eyebrow to the claim that staying at home full time is a “feminist choice.”

But that aside, Wurtzel poked some things that needed to be poked – “I choose my choice” feminism first among them.

In any comment section on the internet where feminism comes up, someone will pipe up and cry, “But feminism is about CHOICE!” No. Feminism is not about choice – at least not insofar as it’s about saying “Any choice women make is a feminist one and so we can’t criticize or judge it.” Feminism isn’t about creating non-judgmental happy-rainbow enclaves where women can do whatever they want without criticism. Feminism is about achieving social, economic and political equality for all people, regardless of gender. It’s not about making every woman feel good about whatever she does, or treating women like delicate hot-house flowers who can’t be criticized.”

“Feminism is, of course, about giving all people a greater range of choices, and not restricting those choices by sex. But the freedom to choose one’s path doesn’t come with a right to be free of criticism or judgment or critical thought.”

“So politically, what does it mean when those women choose to be financially dependent on their husbands and stay home raising kids?

It means immediate financial insecurity for those women (see how much your husband thinks you have “the most important job in the world” when it’s alimony time). It means you have less of an ability to leave the relationship. It means your husband has more decision-making power – you can talk a big game about the egalitarianism of the relationship, but when one person holds the purse strings, they have more say. It means that if something happens – you get a divorce, your husband dies or is incapacitated or goes to jail – and you need to go back to work, you will have a radically limited set of options; taking years off of work does not exactly make one easily employable, in part because one’s skill set has atrophied, and in part because employers rationally don’t want to hire someone who is going to leave the job as soon as a man with a big bank account comes along.”

“And social change has been actively impeded when it comes to gender equality, primarily by men but also by a culture that now puts “choice” (but really a highly-constrained set of very gendered choices) ahead of progress and equality. And many feminists, unfortunately, are complicit in supporting a choice model over an egalitarian one. While how one individual sets up her family may be private, the aggregate is not; and it’s tough to argue that the housewife model is simply a private choice made within families with no outside influence and no greater consequences. The study that came out the other week about men with stay-at-home wives was instructional: Men whose wives stay home see women as less capable, tend to view majority-female businesses as less competent, and are less likely to hire and promote women.

But beyond that, the housewife model is what makes male superiority in the workplace possible, and creates disincentives to more family-friendly workplace policies. Men who have stay-at-home wives literally have nothing other than work to worry about. They have someone who is raising their kids, cooking them dinner, cleaning the house, maintaining the social calendar, taking the kids to doctor’s appointments and after-school activities, getting the dry-cleaning, doing the laundry, buying groceries and on and on (or, in the case of 1% wives, someone who coordinates a staff to do many of those things). That model enables men to work longer hours and be more productive; women in the workplace cannot compete (yes, stay-at-home dads exist, but there are a few thousand of them in the United States, making them uncommon enough to be insignificant for the purposes of this conversation). And of course men see that women can’t compete, and it cements their view that women aren’t as capable, and they end up mentoring bright young men who in turn rise up the ranks. And then the “opt-out” women opt out, and a bunch of other women who wouldn’t have opted out see that there’s not really a place for them and they don’t rise to the top either. And because women are the ones who are constantly treated to discussions on “how to balance work and family,” we feel like that’s our responsibility. Corporate cultures that are built around a man-and-housewife model aren’t exactly family-friendly in the first place, and making them really change is going to be impossible unless men are forced to change their behavior. So far, the corporate response to large numbers of women leaving has been to make it easier for women to leave. “Family-friendly” policies at places like law firms and big banks end up amounting to, “you can work part-time” — which means four days a week, and means you’re never going to achieve the highest-level positions, and is a path really only utilized by women. The men who have always been the most powerful go right on ahead maintaining that power, and they don’t even have to consider their own “work-life balance” because someone else is taking care of the entire “life” part. If none of those men had stay-at-home wives – if the men currently occupying the highest-level jobs in the world had to take as much responsibility for childcare and homecare as working mothers — you can bet that corporate culture would look very different.”

“Corporate achievement in a capitalist society is of course not the only marker of success. But in our society, where we live now, money and success mean influence and power. And women have very little influence and power.”

She concludes:
“What’s weird is our cultural insistence that being a mother is THE MOST IMPORTANT EVER – and what’s troubling is the degree to which that rhetoric serves as a widely lapped-up substitute for actual policy and workplace shifts that would support parents (but especially mothers). Those policy and workplace shifts are by necessity going to undermine and challenge male power. Men aren’t going to do that themselves. So we can talk a big game about choosing my choice and motherhood being The Most Important Job Ever and we can look the other way while men run the show, or we challenge real power and try to get a piece of it.

It’s also worth considering the messages that we model to our kids. If staying home is your “feminist choice” and you actually have a full range of choices, what does that say to your sons and daughters about gender roles? Is it in any way challenging an already deeply-held cultural assumption that women exist to serve others? That women are care-givers and need-meeters and housekeepers and emotional-work-doers, whereas men are breadwinners and influencers and public-sphere-operators who are served by women? What is your son going to expect of himself and in a partner? What is your daughter going to internalize?”

  • So much to think about!

I think it is really great that this discussion has begun/been revived/is making the rounds, it is such an important topic for women today. And for feminism.

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