In our culture, pregnancy is viewed as something you did to yourself. Having a child comes with consequences you must be prepared to accept. This isn’t gender neutral; it’s no accident that women’s reproductive capacity is reduced to a supposedly objective decision-making matrix that sets up women as a class to fail.
On any given day, cultural and political leaders will portray children as punishments for casual sex; as luxuries for wealthy families; and at their most heinous, as ruses for public benefits or citizenship status.
The idea of pregnancy and children as consequences for which women must pay plays out in many sectors of our lives, including restrictions upon reproductive rights, and punitive attacks on the social safety net.
Here I will discuss some of the negative consequences for women in the workplace. I say women intentionally; although not all women are or will become mothers, it is often anticipated they will. So even a woman who has no intention of having children is often unfairly judged by her actual and prospective employers.
The United States does not guarantee paid parental leave. Today pregnant workers still face inadequate workplace protections, as made clear by the failure of Congress to pass a Pregnant Workers Fairness Act that would simply clarify that employers must offer minor accommodations when necessary, such as increased bathroom breaks or lighter lifting duties. A year of day care costs more than a year in public college in 31 states.
These are not just women’s issues or family issues; these are massive economic problems that constrain our economy.
But, I’d argue, our cultural attitudes suck at least as much as our institutional failures to accommodate the reality of parents who work, a reality that resoundingly ends in undervaluing women in their personal lives and on the job.
I have a toddler. It has only been a few years since I was in my early thirties, single, and facing all sorts of biological clock-type questions about whether I wanted to have kids. Bluntly, this kind of pressure can destroy a dating life (if you want one) — I have watched it happen with friends and experienced variations of it myself. But even more, I wish that some of those people who wondered about me being single would have instead asked what I was reading, or working on, or thinking about current events.
If and when women do have children, the very real work they turn around and put into caring for those children is often portrayed as heroic (“the hardest job in the world”), which may be well-intentioned but is ultimately patronizing since caregiving for one’s own family is put on a pedestal but neither compensated nor respected in the marketplace. In portraying the motherly woman as idol, this false heroism also excuses men in heterosexual child-rearing relationships from stepping up to do their fair share.
And on the job? Mark Zuckerberg once said of Facebook having younger (i.e., childless) employees:
“Young people just have simpler lives. We may not have a car. We may not have family. Simplicity in life allows you to focus on what’s important.”
What’s important, apparently, is to be found in those corners of the office where working moms don’t hang out late at night.
You might think, “What the fuck, Zuck?!” and write it off, but I’ve heard versions of this riff in explicitly feminist settings. In one example, I heard a non-profit executive express resentment that women with children didn’t have to work as much as she did. In another, I heard a consultant express concern that a boss who worked standard business hours because of her kids didn’t understand her younger employees needs to come in later in the day.
The first case is frankly bullshit. There’s a cliche going around that if you want something done, you should give it to a mom — and that’s often true. I know motherhood has greatly increased my time management skills. If I need to get something done, I no longer plan to get it done later — that leaves too much margin for error when a toddler depends on me. Further, it’s unfair because many employees smoke and take smoke breaks, or go on long lunches with friends, or leave early to play recreational sports.
The second case greatly concerns me, because ultimately what concern over the supposed rigidity of a working mom’s office schedule says is that a woman with children isn’t fit to make decisions, and isn’t fit to judge how her team should work, including whether they should keep the same hours. In other words, that a mom isn’t fit to be the boss.
Yes, dads get some crap in the workplace, too, but rarely if ever will you hear it suggested that he’s not pulling his weight, or he’s not fit to be the boss, because he has kids. It’s assumed a woman will step up for him when junior throws up all over the classroom on presentation day.
My college thesis examined the failure of the feminist movement (at the time, so we’re talking 2002) to tackle the problem of child care in a visionary way and as a major rallying cry — specifically, why it costs so much, why quality is so varied, and why it is inaccessible to so many. The voices calling for universal child care, or Social Security contributions for caregivers, are too few and far between.
Ultimately the conclusion I reached is that liberal feminism is too invested in theories of bootstraps individualism, and that acknowledging caregiving as gendered, much less a societal obligation (it takes a village) rather than a personal lifestyle, could be seen as threatening to undermine the “long way” you’ve come, “baby.”
I still believe, to an extent, that’s true, but to another extent I would argue today that the failure to progress also sits largely in the friendly and willing cooptation of many feminist organizations by the Democratic Party, which throws bones to the ladies as a matter of electoral convenience and sometimes deeply felt principle, but never should be confused with a movement making radical demands for social change. Although it has been.
I believe these dynamics are at play when we consider why it is not equal to be a mother, or for that matter a woman, in the workplace.