Single mothers need a stronger voice in the work-life debate

Anne-Marie Slaughter came to speak at Yale Law School last week. The lecture room was filled with law students and guests, women and men, all eager to hear her discuss her position on work-life balance. She made a great case – we need more flexibility in the workplace, we need more men in the conversation, we need to make decisions based on family and not based on gender. She emphasized the need for equal partnership; for equal parenting; for government and employers to support, instead of punish, the family.

The conversation was enlightening – honest and insightful – and yet, I left feeling somewhat dissatisfied. It took me a little while to gather my thoughts and identify why. Then it hit me. The assumption was there was going to be someone there who was available to take on a chunk of the work. The recent work-life balance debate – the question of whether women could or could not have it all – had been largely operating on the assumption that the choice of family or career was a choice. What about single mothers? Where do they fit into this debate? For them, family or career isn’t – can’t be – a choice. Their kids are there, and they have to find a way to feed them. What good is all this debate about breaking through conventional gender roles doing them?

Single parents, and single mothers in particular, bear a special burden in America. Around half of today’s mothers will spend some time as a single mother. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, over 11.7 million families were headed by single parents in 2011, and 85% of those families were headed by single mothers. That’s 10 million families. And yet, somehow, single mothers are largely missing from the work-life balance debate. I think Slaughter has been absolutely right in advancing pro-family arguments, but the discussion needs to reflect the reality that is the American family. The discussion needs to be expanded to include all families, including those headed by single parents. 

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was landmark legislation that prohibited employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, and sex. Sex discrimination lawsuits and enforcement actions significantly changed the landscape of the workforce. In 1967, women made up less than 15% of the workforce. Today, women comprise nearly half of the workforce. Despite the protections Title VII offers women generally, Title VII does not include prohibitions against parental status discrimination. There are no federal laws barring employers from discriminating against an employee based on his or her status as a single parent.

Parental status discrimination is especially damaging to women, and even more so to single mothers. Single mothers tend to be in lower paying jobs that are less flexible and include fewer labor protections, while also being the group that needs flexibility the most. Half of single mother families earn less than $25,000 each year, and the median income for a single mother family is one-third the median income for a dual-parent family. The poverty rate for single-mother families is over 40%, compared to just under 9% for dual-parent families. Single mothers often do not have the luxury of choosing between a career and a family. It is our obligation to open that choice – to make it possible for single mothers to maintain a job and to earn a livable working wage. We need labor protections and antidiscrimination laws to protect single mothers from losing their jobs just because they needed an accommodation in order to be mothers.

These concerns do not extend only to women in low-paying jobs. The new no-telecommuting policy announced by Yahoo! this week sets a dangerous precedent. It effectively penalizes parents and caregivers, and will penalize single parents the most. The expectation that people’s realities will allow for such an inflexible workspace is not only impractical, it’s harmful. It ignores the litany of real-life emergencies that may afflict any one of us at any given moment. And while Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer may be able to afford quality childcare and arrange for someone to care for her child when he gets sick, most parents – and single parents in particular – may not have that luxury.

Work is important. Family is important. Today’s work-life debate largely focuses on breaking down conventional gender roles and attacking the structural impediments that reinforce them. While helpful, this debate is incomplete. We need to expand the conversation to include single parent families. If the goal is to have it all, we need to strive for solutions that help everyone – not just the idealized dual-parent family – realize that goal.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

Haiyun Zhao is a student at Yale Law School.

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