To the Editor:
As an educator who is a career mom devoted to studying sexual equality in the context of work-life balance issues, I read with interest Froma Harrop's essay "Executive Women are not that Special, Either" (July 9, 2012). In it, Harrop reflects upon the lessons yielded by intersecting two recent cultural events, the Wellesley High School graduation speech by teacher David McCullough Jr., who instructed students to "not get the idea that you are anything special", and the article in The Atlantic magazine by Anne-Marie Slaughter, "Why Women Still Can't Have it All." The latter article recounts Slaughter's decision to leave a State Department position to spend more time with her two teenage boys, and her criticism of the work culture which prevents ambitious women from having it all. Although acknowledging that Slaughter's complaint is a somewhat righteous grievance for all parents, Harrop nonetheless observes that there is never enough of "it," and that "Duh," the difficulty of combining parenthood and career is self-evident. Agreeing with Slaughter that the culture of "time macho", (corporate work cultures which demand 60 hour work weeks and all- nighters) penalizes mothers in the paid work force seeking work-life balance, Harrop notes that this is a problem for men as much as women, and berates Slaughter for seeking a life of maternal "self-imposed drudgery in the quest of having others think your special."
Philosophically, Harrop is correct to underscore that there is more to life than "scrambling the pole of executive power and raising reasonably well adjusted children," and that as parents, men as well as women may find themselves in similar binds. Harrop is also right to take Slaughter to task for overlooking economic and other social advantages that afford middle-upper class women privileges that most middle-lower class mothers in the paid work force can only dream about (such as Slaughter's ability to take a 10 month paid sabbatical in Shanghai in order to invest in her "family bank"). But Harrop drops the baby in considering some of the differences facing mothers and fathers in social and corporate cultures, as well as how equality of participation in paid work is premised on a limited model of formal sex equality based on a false presumption human sameness, and that the U.S. stands nearly alone in failing to offer a paid family and medical work leave.
To some extent, women have come a long way to achieve formal sex equality with men, but the intersection of parenthood and paid work continues to be an area of massive imparity. Although more men than ever share domestic work, recent studies show that whatever equality in housework exists for men and women living together without children, this equity drops drastically when children enter the picture. Even when both parents work full time, working mothers tend to perform the bulk of child and house related work in comparison to fathers. To adjust for this disparity, if they are able, many women reduce their paid work to part time, or when able, "opt out" of paid work altogether.
This "choice" is not without cost, as it decreases the financial earnings and retirement benefits of mothers. Economist Anne Crittendon calls this "the price of motherhood" and estimates it to be on average over a million dollars in lost wages and benefits for individual mothers. Other studies show that whereas fatherhood is an asset to men seeking employment, motherhood is a liability for women, even when all other qualifications are otherwise the same. Likewise, the sex-based wage gap is closing much more rapidly for women without children (90 cents to a man's dollar), than for mothers (77 cents to a man's dollar). Incidentally, as Slaughter was for a time in academia, motherhood has been shown to also be a liability for earning tenure, while fatherhood is positively correlated to this achievement in job security.
Part of the problem is that sex based equality in the paid work place has been conceptualized and measured according to an "add women and stir" approach, whereby the gates to employment have been flung open to women only to the extent that they can conform to a masculine based understanding of " worker" and "workplace." According to this model, parenting is a "private" choice that is easily combined with paid work because one can depend on having a wife at home. Mothers in the paid work force must conform to this model by finding a "wife" of their own, whether this be a "Mr. Mom," grandma, nanny, day care worker, or latch key kid. How this is accomplished, and whether it is viable, fair and healthy for all involved is not typically the concern of the corporation. But the world of finance is not above promoting the image of the devoted family, or to capitalize on its fruits. In the meantime, men are less likely to shoulder the burdens of domestic work, and more likely to be alternately admired or demasculinized if they, say, change a diaper or stay home with a sick child. Female care-givers in the paid work force are left with the disparate burden of having to devote themselves to two types of labor, while pretending that one does not exist, because they are rightly assumed to be more burdened by it.
Often, these sex based dynamics are characterized and explained away as "free choices" that women make, based on different value systems. This may be, but we should not overlooks the ways in which women are more socialized than men to notice and be skilled at domestic work (which is rightly valued as essential to life itself), how they are more often held responsible for and judged according to the state of child and home, and how there is a lack of other viable options which would make combining paid work and motherhood less difficult in the U.S. For example, the United States is only one of three out of 167 countries which does not offer a paid maternal/parental leave for the birth or adoption of a child. Countries with vastly less financial resources than our own have recognized that motherhood is special. They understand that most mothers (and fathers) need to work for pay in order to support their families, and that combining paid work and motherhood is extremely difficult. Their policies reflect a commitment to the belief that mothers (and all who give care) should be supported in their vital work, and awareness that the world of finance is not internally inclined to offer this support, except in ways that promise internal profit.
Given this, McCullough Jr. and Harrop's observation that (outside of the family), children and female executives who happen to be mothers are not special, is certainly an apt and accurate measure of the appraisal of the young and maternal in the larger work force. However, this point of view is a matter of perspective. The world of paid work is also beholden to recognize that most people work to support their families. Families depend on the work of mothers and fathers. Painting Slaughter as seeking self-aggrandizing "specialness" when she insists on being acknowledged as a mother, as well as a scholar and executive, misses the fact that mothers are special, paid or not. To her children, Slaughter is undoubtedly special and irreplaceable, as they are to her. Women like Slaughter who draw attention to this problem are also special to the millions of mothers currently struggling in the paid work force, and upcoming generations of girls who would like to be able to combine paid work and motherhood in moderate, if not ambitious ways. It is only to the loss of family and business that the work of care giving in all its forms is regarded as marginal to paid labor and the essential meaning of life.