Sunday, August 8, 2010

Change is Possible

We’ll have to get beyond the Mommy Wars and instead create rewarding career paths even for parents — fathers, too — who take months or years off. We’ll have to get more creative about part-time and flexible work, too.

I normally don't like the trend pieces of the New York times, but this one really hit home because it's something I've been thinking about a lot - the wage gap, having kids, returning to work, etc. Basically, women who work full time before having children make about as much as men working full time (all else being equal) but that gap drastically shifts after a woman has kids, even if she returns to work full time later. Often because she can't leave early, stay late, travel with last minute notice, etc. Over all, full-time female workers make a whopping 23 percent less on average than full-time male workers.

And often the argument is, well women want to stay home and don't want to work the late hours, which is sometimes true. But I don't think that's always the case. I think what women really want is to change the overall picture of what being a working mom (or dad) looks like. And like this article states, that includes both legal AND cultural changes. All the laws in the world won't make for a better work environment without cultural changes. And I think we're already starting to see the cultural changes with dads being more involved in parenting, and dads wanting flexible work schedules as well. Unfortunately I don't think we're to the point where men in general are likely to ask for paternity leave, flex time, etc. to take care of kids because it's still seen as "weak" and it's something that puts you at a significant disadvantage at work. I think as this continues to change, we'll look back and put this in the column of "feminism benefits men too."

What I find particularly interesting is the article quotes a university professor as saying, "American feminists made a conscious choice to emphasize equal rights and equal opportunities, but not to talk about policies that would address family responsibilities."

But when you look at who is actually advocating for policy changes, such as expanding family leave, creating flexible work schedules, providing health insurance for low income mothers and babies - it's American feminists. There's a huge presence online of women and mothers advocating for change - Moms Rising, RH Reality Check, plus pretty much all the major feminist blogs. And it's not just women with children either.

And you would think with all the ladies in politics that have been in the news lately (fourteen Republican women are running for U.S. Senate, and 94 are seeking House seats) this would be an enormous opportunity for change in regards to policies that affect women and mothers. But unfortunately, as Ann Friedman points out in the American Prospect, "the core narrative is fiscal, not cultural." These women strongly oppose government spending. "After watching enough of their ads and campaign speeches, you start to get the idea that, when they gaze into their children's eyes, all these mothers can think about is the deficit."

Where do these candidates stand on children's health insurance? On family-leave policies? On consumer product safety? On early childhood education? We can make some inferences based on their anti-government talking points, but their campaigns don't even touch on these issues. When they do weigh in, they offer opposition, not solutions. They're against "Obamacare." Against cap-and-trade. Against spending. The campaign website of Sharron Angle, the extreme right-wing challenger to Harry Reid in Nevada, was recently scrubbed of calls to completely abolish the Department of Education.

Yes, "mama grizzlies" (ugh I hate that term!!) are making noise. And yes, I'm glad we're seeing more women in politics. But as Ann points out "these women's very political careers are made possible by the flexible hours, health-care access, and other benefits that they do not want to extend to other mothers."

My mom was working a great paying job in downtown Chicago before she had kids. She decided to quit work because she didn't want her kids in day care. Once we were school age, she went back to work part time, closer to home and for much much less money. As we got older and were reasonably responsible enough to look after ourselves for a few hours after school, she went back to work full time. Again, for much much less money than when she was working in Chicago (with inflation taken into account). And I see myself kind of following that same path. Probably will have kids later in life if I have kids at all, probably won't want to put them in day care if we can help it. And I get a little sad because it's a full generation later and so much has changed but yet so little has changed at the same time.

I don't want to take time off and then go back to work five years later to make $10.00/ an hour part time and have my lifetime earnings drop that drastically because I had kids. And so that's why, even if I never have kids, I'll continue to voice my opinion and be an advocate for working mothers so that maybe I will see change in my lifetime. Maybe I'll see the new norm be that both parents work and share child rearing responsibilities somewhat equally. Honestly, I think that would make my mom proud.

And if you're skeptical that change is possible, I don't blame you but please think about this: For almost 200 years, the Supreme Court did not have a single woman on its bench. As of yesterday afternoon, it has three.

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