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Thursday, June 13, 2013

Is Motherhood the Real Barrier to Gender Equality at Work?

I'll begin by answering my own question.  Yes, the data appears to indicate that it motherhood is the biggest barrier to equality for men and women in the workplace.  Historian Stephanie Coontz persuasively outlines the existence of what she terms "the motherhood penalty" in a recent column. For instance, one study showed that employers were half as likely to call back a woman whose cv indicated that she was a mother, as opposed to women with similar "fake" cvs that did not. Mothers earn 5 per cent less per hour, PER CHILD, than childless women. And most of the gains women have made in income parity have been by childless women.

So why?  Are women themselves opting out of the workplace with motherhood?  This is true in part, but often they're not given the choice. (And the hourly wage data outlined by Coontz also indicates this is not the full story). A story from half a century ago is, sadly, still salient. In 1961, graduate student applicant Phyllis Richman received a letter from Harvard asking her to "for [her] own benefit, and to aid [Harvard] in coming to a final decision, kindly write us a page or two at [her] earliest convenience indicating specifically how you might plan to comgine a professional life in city planning with your responsibilities to your husband and a possible future family?"  There it is in that last phrase--motherhood, assuredly the future for all married women.

The Harvard professor writing the letter considerately opined that  "to speak directly, our experience, even with brilliant students, has been that married women find it difficult to carry out worthwhile careers in planning [or other professions], and hence tend to have some feeling of waste about the time and effort spent in professional education [of any type]." I.e. Harvard was not accepting her, and would not accept her unless her letter outlining her balance of work and family was satisfactory, for her own good.  52 years later, the former professor maintained this position in response to Ms. Richman's belated answer to Harvard's letter, published in the Washington Post last week: "[Ms. Richman,] you were about to make a considerable investment of time and money. I thought it fair that you be aware of employment conditions as I then perceived them."  I have had similar experiences. For instance, a former employer asked if I would prefer not to take depositions I had prepared for in a class action case since I would have to, every 4 hours, take a break to pump breast milk for my eldest son. Even if well intended, these types of assumptions deny women the opportunity to choose for themselves how they are going to balance work and parenthood. (Besides, I've never been in a deposition where people did not take periodic bathroom breaks).

Certainly achieving work family balance is not easy. People's choices are constrained by the legal framework in the U.S. which encourages specialization in marriage (as Deb Widiss points out in a recent Atlantic piece) and privatizes support, particularly of inherently dependent children, within the family. Quality child care is extremely expensive and the cost-benefit analysis for many couples, even those with two trained professionals, often dictates that one spouse stays home or "leans out" of the workforce.

However, labor market differences in education and pay don't dictate that this be the mother as often as it is. And the discrepancies are not limited to child care. Women, even working women, continue  to do a disproportionate share of housework--recent department of labor data reveals that where both the husband and wife have fulltime jobs, the wife does almost twice as much housework and American men have almost 40 minutes extra per day leisure time than women. (In fact the OECD found that men enjoy more leisure time than women in every one of the 18 countries it surveyed).

Speaking of which, I have to stop blogging because I have to finish a symposium piece and meet with a student, before picking up my kids, stopping by the drugstore, paying the sitter. . .

Posted by Cynthia Godsoe on June 13, 2013 at 11:50 AM | Permalink

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Absent legal constraints, no employer in his right mind would hire a pregnant woman or a mother, considering the hit he would have to take in insurance premiums, lost work, FMLA and so on. Indeed, a young woman who is in fact sterile would do herself a great favor by announcing at the interview that won't and can't have kids.

As a young single man, I always avoided taking "benefitted" positions, opting instead to earn double the usual wage rate in contract and consulting work, either on a 1099 or W-2 un-benefitted position. It is no wonder that young childfree men will earn a premium, seeing that otherwise they would find the pro-natal policy of an employer a turn-off. I have often worked six-months on, six-months off, primarily to avoid paying at the high tax bracket I would be thrown into. A breeding woman doesn't have that option and will have to settle for low pay and some benefits. This is only just, since the childfree man has his own priorities that don't include enslavement to the pro-natal policies of the Nanny State.

Posted by: jimbino | Jun 13, 2013 1:40:43 PM

“Women, even working women, continue to do a disproportionate share of housework--recent department of labor data reveals that where both the husband and wife have fulltime jobs, the wife does almost twice as much housework . . . .”

This is true but is perhaps misleading, and I think it illustrates how stats related to gender issues can be problematic. For example, the study you cite defines “full time” as working more than 35 hours per week. As the study indicates, however, men who work full time work more hours outside the home than women who work full time. Thus, the study states “Even among full-time workers (those usually working 35 hours or more per week), men worked longer than women—8.3 hours compared with 7.5 hours.”

“the wife does almost twice as much housework . . . .”

Again, this seems problematic. Notice that the study’s definition excludes from “housework” other “household activities” that pertain to managing the home, such as “lawn and garden care” and financial management. I see no reason why these hours should be excluded given the context of the discussion.

And, assuming “housework” rather than “household activities” is the relevant point of reference, I don’t see where it says that women who work “full time” do twice as much “housework” than men who work “full time,” though I admit I might have simply missed this. As such, can you perhaps provide a page cite?

Numbers aside, interesting discussion.

Posted by: Anonomite | Jun 13, 2013 1:48:33 PM

Thanks for these comments. To respond to each in turn:
Jimbino, I agree that individual women who either don't or don't want to have children can benefit from conveying that to their employers. But society as a whole suffers where the burden of raising children is privatized to such a degree so that women and men (because I think working fathers are also discriminated against, albeit in different ways) cannot properly balance work and family. At risk of sounding too pro-natalist, the nation as a whole benefits from healthy children which is why virtually every other affluent country has far better family leave etc policies.

Anonomist, great point. Using statistics is always a little tricky, particularly in blog posts which do not allow for tons of nuance. As to your second point, I do think the study shows that even where yard work, finances etc are included, women still do considerably more non-paid labor at home than do men. As to the hours, I think this reflects the societal pressures on men, i.e. to work more and earn more, which are likely as unfair as the pressures on women to lean out and be perfect mothers. Perhaps the better indicator is leisure time, which this DOL study, and the OECD study I originally linked to, indicate men consistently have more of than women, on both weekdays and weekends.

Posted by: Cynthia Godsoe | Jun 13, 2013 2:10:23 PM

These sorts of household labor studies are trying to compare not only apples and oranges, but bananas, cherries, pineapples, and the occasional watermelon.

An hour of cooking is not the same as an hour of mowing the lawn. Yard work is generally the most physically demanding and exhausting household activity. Yet at the same time plenty of men (and women) enjoy yard work, and it's more of a hobby to them than a chore. Likewise some people see cooking dinner as a chore, and others find it incredibly enjoyable. Does barbecuing count as household labor or leisure? What about washing the car? Walking the dog? What if you don't particularly like doing the laundry and the dishes, but you derive a great amount of pleasure from giving your partner some extra time on the couch?

These things are so personalized that the only function of national statistics that ignore all the nuance would seem to be fueling a battle of the sexes, and it's silly to have a goal of equalizing the national numbers.

What makes far more sense is to focus on teaching people communication and relationship skills so that they can openly discus the division of household labor with their partner. Let each couple decide for itself what's fair and equitable.

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Jun 13, 2013 3:36:35 PM

Cynthia,

There is a fundamental flaw in your argument about a nation's gaining from nurturing children. Many of us who are unmarried and childfree have already voted against coddling of marriage and the intrusion of children in our lives. Why, exactly, should we ever support a system that promises ever more children, with the concomitant pollution, extinctions, crowding and wars?

Indeed, I would find it quite wholesome to invest time and effort in development of a universal contraceptive for the world's waters. Do you have some reason, besides "Go forth, multiply, pollute and exterminate" to base your pro-natalism on?

Posted by: jimbino | Jun 13, 2013 3:54:23 PM

Jimbino writes: "Many of us who are unmarried and childfree have already voted against coddling of marriage and the intrusion of children in our lives. Why, exactly, should we ever support a system that promises ever more children, with the concomitant pollution, extinctions, crowding and wars?"

And yet you personally agreed to be a child, didn't you?

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jun 13, 2013 5:58:05 PM

As you may know, Ken Dau-Schmidt has some slides from a study that tracked hours worked by male and female attorneys but also by whether the attorneys have children and if the attorney missed work to do childcare. The data is a little old by now and it come from Michigan law alums so perhaps it's not typical, but the impact of having kids is enormous for both men and women attorneys. For men, having kids correlated with lots more hours working in the legal profession; for women it's correlated with lots fewer hours in the profession. The two hardest working groups -- men with kids and doing no childcare, and women without kids -- worked pretty comparable hours. I have Ken's slides and permission to share them if anyone's interested in them.

Posted by: John Steele | Jun 13, 2013 8:34:16 PM

Orin,

You must be brain-damaged to charge a child with responsibility for being born. Hell, as it is, all babies are born atheist and about one-quarter are genitally mutilated at birth. Do you hold them responsible for their own genital mutilation?

What legal rock did you crawl out from under?

The world might sustain birth of children who are wanted and who have something positive to offer. As it is, breeders are crashing our picnic with children in tow but no food.

Posted by: jimbino | Jun 14, 2013 12:13:11 AM

I agree with most of your post, but I'm a bit puzzled by this:

"a former employer asked if I would prefer not to take depositions I had prepared for in a class action case since I would have to, every 4 hours, take a break to pump breast milk for my eldest son. Even if well intended, these types of assumptions deny women the opportunity to choose for themselves how they are going to balance work and parenthood."

Does a man really deny a woman the right to choose her work-life balance if he offers her a choice about how she wants to participate in a business matter? I would infer the exact opposite -- offering a choice gives a woman the right to choose. I'm struggling to see how offering a choice denies the ability to make a choice.

If the point is that even offering a choice is offensive, I'm similarly puzzled. If there were an intonation that a woman *could not* perform a task because of motherhood, that would of course be inappropriate. But a courteous question, if intended as a courteous question, is not that.


Posted by: andy | Jun 14, 2013 1:15:29 AM

jimbino - apparently your sarcasm detector is broken.

Posted by: Michael Risch | Jun 14, 2013 9:27:08 AM

Andy,

I was likewise confused. I don't see how offering a choice is a form of removing a choice. It can be if there's certain subtext involved, but Cynthia said the denial of choice is there "even if well intentioned." The only choice I see being removed is the ability to choose for yourself how to deal with balancing work and parenthood without informing your boss or getting permission to deviate from the normal work schedule. If that's it, then tough luck. Pregnancy doesn't give you Don Draper rights to just disappear in the middle of the afternoon without telling anyone.

Contrariwise, I can see the argument going the other way if he didn't ask. Law is a high pressure, competitive field, and many associates won't feel comfortable asking for any sort of special accommodations, no matter how reasonable or necessary. You could argue that by not letting her know she had options she would have been denied them. I don't really like that argument either, but I think it carries more water than Cynthia's.

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Jun 14, 2013 9:41:47 AM

Cynthia Godsoe: "But society as a whole suffers where the burden of raising children is privatized to such a degree so that women and men...cannot properly balance work and family."

___________________________

Isn't this "suffering" observation just opinion stated as fact? Those such as jimbino, above, who have different preferences in the matter, would "suffer" much more if the situation were reversed.

Posted by: Joel | Jun 14, 2013 11:04:02 AM

jimbino, thank you for demonstrating for us what you meant by concomitant pollution. perhaps you will save us any more of yours?

Posted by: AFinanceGuy | Jun 14, 2013 11:24:29 AM

AFinanceGuy, thank you for reminding us that this is truly an academic blog, wherein empty drive-by snark as a substitute for reasoned exchange is recognized as lame.

Posted by: NYAnon | Jun 14, 2013 11:51:14 AM

Orin's comment is gratuitous nonsense no matter how it's taken, ironic or otherwise.

Yes, I agreed to be a child since I didn't kill myself.
No, I didn't agree to be born a child. The breeder is the polluter, of course.

Why would anyone focus on volition of the child?

Legal handwaving. Doesn't Orin have anything cogent to say?

Posted by: jimbino | Jun 14, 2013 4:15:48 PM

It's a freakin' blog, peoples.

Posted by: Bob | Jun 14, 2013 10:40:14 PM

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