I am writing this while on the train for a work-related trip. It’s Saturday. My kids are with my husband, off on an excursion to Baltimore’s children’s museum. While this set-up is not necessarily typical for us (he probably works more hours, and I do more childcare), I didn’t send him with detailed instructions. I didn’t remind him of what our kids eat and don’t. My only mommy moment, really, was shoving a second pacifier in his pocket. That’s just hard-won experience.
So that is the mindset in which I have been re-reading Stephanie Coontz’s recent op-ed in the New York Times on “Why Gender Equality Stalled.” Coontz is one of my favorite historians. She’s well-versed in the realities of how women spend their time, and has a specialty in women’s magazines (I interviewed her recently for a piece I’m writing on such magazines from 50 years ago; Coontz wrote A Strange Stirring, a look at where women were in 1963 when Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique came out).
Coontz recounts the usual statistics: women continue to earn less than men despite being increasingly better educated. While the majority of Americans disagree that the male breadwinner-female homemaker situation is ideal, there’s been a slight uptick in recent years in the percentage who do. Most women claim to want to work part-time; women’s labor force participation is off of its highs. Looking at all this, Coontz argues that “The gender revolution is not in a stall. It has hit a wall.”
Why is that? Coontz argues that the demands of work have intensified. “As of 2000, the average dual-earner couple worked a combined 82 hours a week, while almost 15 percent of married couples had a joint workweek of 100 hours or more.” Couples say they want egalitarian marriages, but when the demands of work and life become intense, they revert to the fall-back position, which is that the woman is supposed to make the accommodations. She’ll try to work part-time, but when that doesn’t work, “Female professionals are twice as likely to quit work as other married mothers when their husbands work 50 hours or more a week and more than three times more likely to quit when their husbands work 60 hours or more.” She argues that there need to be more family-friendly policies.
I like family friendly policies, too (and don’t get me started on the Yahoo! no-more-telecommuting memo), but I think there are some other issues to consider here. For starters, there’s not necessarily clear evidence that our average workweeks are soaring. The BLS’s monthly surveys tend to put the average civilian workweek at 33 hours. That doesn’t sound too taxing. Using American Time Use Survey figures of married parents (calculated 2003-2006), the average couple in which both parents work full-time has a combined 78-hour workweek; the average couple in which mom works part-time (which many women do) and dad works full-time have a combined workweek of 62 hours. I'd put the average somewhere between those two numbers. But let’s use Coontz’s average of 82 hours. If dad is working 45 and mom is working 37 hours (reflecting roughly the differential time use surveys find), and mom and dad are both sleeping 8 hours per night, dad has 67 hours per week for other things, and mom has 75 hours. This is a lot of time.
But what about those 100-hour couples? Speaking as someone in that camp, I can also report that one can still have space for other things. This week my husband and I will both work out multiple times. He took our 3-year-old to school yesterday. We took the kids to a little party at the YMCA last night. The two of us went out for dinner. A 50-hour workweek, if one gets 8 hours of sleep per night (which many people in this camp claim not to get), still leaves 62 hours for other things. If that 100-hour workweek is split 60-40 (and I can tell you, from research and from the time logs I see that 60 is pretty close to maxing out on regular workweeks) then one party is still getting 72 hours for other things. The other has 52. This is a lot of time for “balance” or whatever the buzz word is.
I don’t deny that women married to men working 60 hours per week are more likely to quit their jobs. For starters, these 60-hour-per-week jobs are often well paid. Mothers may assume that if they don’t have to work, and they’re not in love with their jobs, why should they? Personally, I think it’s best to find work you do love so you want to stick with it, but not all women are in such situations. But beyond that, I think this reverting to tradition in the face of pressure is not just about corporate friendliness or unfriendliness, it’s also about the narratives we tell ourselves.
Remember our lawyer from a few months ago who had an awful day, and so quit with a dramatic time log? I proposed alternate narratives, where quitting her job wasn’t the only solution. Unfortunately, as a society, we are still uncomfortable with the idea of mothers working, and so when things get crazy (which they can!) the tendency is to identify “working” as the problem, and so the job has to go.
I’d love to see society change more in the direction of gender equality. But in the meantime, women who want egalitarian families and professional flexibility should remind ourselves that we are not helpless victims of social pressure. We can be our own advocates.
One of the best ways to do that on the personal side is to maintain the ability to earn a good enough living to support yourself and your children at a high standard. That way, you maintain negotiating ability within your marriage. When things get rough, you quitting is not the most obvious answer.
As for work, rather than wait for an official work-life balance agreement with your company, you simply do what you want, and figure that if you come in 15 minutes later because you went to the gym after dropping your kid off at school, but your work is stunning, you probably won’t get fired. Firing people is actually pretty tricky. You build up a broad enough professional network and enough career capital that you maintain negotiating ability within your job, too. You’re in enough demand to work how you want. If Yahoo! ends its work-from-home policies, and you want to work from home, you call up that other tech company that keeps trying to bring you over. They hire you after a quick interview via Skype.
None of this is easy, of course. But who said life would be easy? We have our tricky moments, of course, but I want my kids to see that mommies can, in fact, lean in even after having kids. And dads can too (with a binky in the pocket).
Photo courtesy flickr user thesoftlanding. We're more of an Avent household, not a Nuk one.