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Opting for Family-Friendly Policies

July 17, 2007

In a recent article and a follow-up blog on women’s work patterns, two Washington Post writers cling to the traditional media framing of the difficult options facing a mother as being within the realm of personal choice rather than a matter of public policy. And the article and blog are served with the usual “guilt cocktail” on how these busy women rate themselves as parents. Both Donna St. George, in “Part-Time Looks Fine to Working Mothers: 60% Prefer It to Full-Time or No Job,” and Leslie Morgan Steiner, in her subsequent blog, talk about what women “prefer” and find “most appealing” in terms of work and family. However, unlike the recent Pew Research that served as a basis for their stories, they neglect to underscore the need for a change in workplace policies “that have been slow to accommodate parents.” The reality is that most women—who generally have to work to make ends meet—are providing for their children, not neglecting them, by taking paid jobs, a fact that gets lost in all the media-fueled mommy guilt. The United States has long lagged behind the rest of the world in family-friendly policies, but the need has never been greater, with full-time schedules stretching to 50 hours a week, 75% of children living in families where all parents work, and an ever larger share of women joining the workforce. The media continues to discuss a mother’s personal choice. But how are women who would “choose” to go part-time supposed to negotiate flexible hours in a family-hostile work atmosphere? At a June 28 Demos Forum in New York City—entitled “Moms Who Work: Myth and Reality” and moderated by Linda Tarr-Whelan, a Demos distinguished senior fellow—Lois K. Bacon, vice president of Families and Work Institute, emphasized how difficult it can be to reduce working hours, even for women who are highly educated and advanced in their careers. Instead, “women are ‘opting out’ of the current situation,” Bacon said, citing the case of one extremely successful academic who was denied a few hours off per week to pick up her child from school, and thus ‘chose’ to stay at home. Women’s struggle with intransigent bosses and lack of control over their work lives are obscured by a media that tends to pit stay-at-home moms against moms in the waged workforce. Panelist E.J. Graff of Brandeis University tracked the most recent of such media trends to a controversial 2003 New York Times Magazine article announcing an “Opt-out Revolution.” The revolution is little more than a myth, argues Graff, but the media plays on women’s anxieties with catchy terms like “mommy wars,” choosing to titillate rather than educate. To counter the hype, the National Association of Mothers’ Center joined with MOTHERS and in a “ceasefire” petition, demanding that the media “move beyond the false rhetoric” and “cover the true issues.” At a Women’s Media Center press conference early this year to highlight the petition, Carol Jenkins, WMC president, said the media focus should be the real issues of childcare, work/life balance, and social policy. “Falsely pitting women against each other is not the way to tell this story,” said Jenkins, who also participated as a co-sponsor in the Demos Forum. But playing on women’s fears is a time-tested audience builder, as Graff pointed out, citing Caryl Rivers’ new book, Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women. So the ‘opt out’ trend stories get prominent placement while more informed coverage of workplace issues is relegated to business sections, said Graff, citing a UC Hastings Center for WorkLife Law report. Framing the problem correctly is a necessary first step to policy change, concluded Graff. For example, most media use a familiar statistic of 77 cents on the dollar when talking about the wage gap between men and women. But an Institute for Women’s Policy Research report, “Still a Man’s Labor Market: The Long-Term Earnings Gap,” looks at the gender comparison over a 15 year period to more realistically measure a mother’s situation in the workforce. The real wage gap, according to this study, is more like 36 cents on the dollar, as a result of a gender segregated job market and the time women spend over the years in unpaid care giving. Understanding these dynamics over time suggests the need for policy changes to bolster a woman’s financial security, such as a caregiver tax credit and legislation for paid family leave. (The Family Leave Insurance Act, recently introduced by Senators Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Ted Stevens of Alaska, would provide workers with eight weeks of paid benefits over a 12-month period.) These are issues that affect men too, as more contribute as caregivers and more and more complain of not being able to spend enough time with their families. More people are moving to a “dual-centric” approach to their lives, said Bacon.  Successful management of work and family responsibilities need not be the zero sum game suggested by the phrase “balancing” work and family, an either/or concept that implies a scale where if one side is up, the other must be down. For example, people in a supportive work environment will arrive home in better moods and with more energy—qualities that, unlike time, are not finite. Those with a dual-centric attitude tend to be more satisfied and rate themselves higher as parents. To help meet the needs of those who have career aspirations but are looking for flexible work options to accommodate family needs, the Families and Work Institute is compiling a list of “Flexible Work Staffing Firms” that cater to these needs.  For information on this and other resources available to working mothers, please contact the WMC by e-mailing Joining the WMC as cosponsors of the Demos Forum were the Families and Work Institute, the National Association of Mothers’ Center, the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, and Columbia Journalism Review.