work-life balance signpost

Are better work-life policies the key to gender equality?

work-life balance signpostThe always-brilliant Stephanie Coontz thinks so. In an op-ed in the New York Times this weekend, she argues that gender equality in the US has stalled primarily because of our awful work-family policies.

For more than two decades the demands and hours of work have been intensifying. Yet progress in adopting family-friendly work practices and social policies has proceeded at a glacial pace.

Today the main barriers to further progress toward gender equity no longer lie in people’s personal attitudes and relationships. Instead, structural impediments prevent people from acting on their egalitarian values, forcing men and women into personal accommodations and rationalizations that do not reflect their preferences. The gender revolution is not in a stall. It has hit a wall.

…Astonishingly, despite the increased workload of families, and even though 70 percent of American children now live in households where every adult in the home is employed, in the past 20 years the United States has not passed any major federal initiative to help workers accommodate their family and work demands. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 guaranteed covered workers up to 12 weeks unpaid leave after a child’s birth or adoption or in case of a family illness. Although only about half the total work force was eligible, it seemed a promising start. But aside from the belated requirement of the new Affordable Care Act that nursing mothers be given a private space at work to pump breast milk, the F.M.L.A. turned out to be the inadequate end.

Coontz points to a study we mentioned recently that shows the vast majority of both men and women prefer an egalitarian marriage in which both partners continue their careers and contribute to child-rearing and housework. Unfortunately, it’s damn near impossible in our economy to strike a healthy balance between work and the rest of life–whether you’re a high-income worker whose career demands increasingly long hours or a low-income worker who has to take on multiple jobs just to make ends meet. And when the egalitarian ideal can’t be met, material and societal pressures often dictate that women be the ones to cut back or drop out of the workforce to pick up the slack at home. (For single parents–most often mothers–the lack of workplace support is obviously even more punishing.) 

As Coontz makes clear, both men and women lose when couples are forced to fall back on a traditional division of labor thanks to our lack of family-friendly policies. While the feminist battle of Betty Friedan’s generation may have been to recognize that women want to be in the workplace–and can hold their own once there–at this point that shift in attitudes has largely been completed. Most people want gender equality–at home and at work. Women are more likely to say their careers are very important to them and men are more likely to say they struggle with work-life balance.

Yet our institutions haven’t caught up, leaving us “stuck between a rock and a hard place.” To break out of this bind, the first step is recognizing that this fight should belong to all of us.

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Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. Maya has previously worked at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health and was a fellow at Mother Jones magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. A Minnesota native, she currently lives, writes, edits, and bakes bread in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

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  • Lee

    Please correct me if I am wrong, but there is so much gender inequity in countries that have far superior policies on work/ life balance. Here is what I can’t stop thinking: why do straight women keep marrying careerist men? I am not trying to diminish the sexism in our society, but I am trying to point out that, like gay couples, we have this option: women can marry a man they support who wants to stay home with children.

    It bothers me so much when women say this isn’t possible- I see it happen all the time in lower income families. (And lots of men are not career-types.) I know we all internalize sexism, how many women would not be comfortable supporting a man as a stay at home parent? If they are not comfortable with this, I’d say they are sexist, too. And that is a deep part of this problem.

    • honeybee

      This is a good point. I read a survey recently (damned if I can find it!) that showed that the majority of women do not want a stay-at-home partner or the like. They don’t view that as sexy or masculine. They may like the idea of it in general – ie: that society should have more of it – but they don’t want their specific partner to do this.

      This is something we need to talk about and analyze further. Because it’s hard enough getting guys to take on these roles now without the added burden of the women in their lives actively discouraging them from doing so.