Born in the 1980s, my generation has grown up hearing from our elders that gender is a fiction. “Men and women are the same,” my humanities lecturers taught me. “To romanticize motherhood is to do women an injustice,” we’re told.
Parenthood for women, we learned, should be the same as parenthood for men. It should be optional, and it should be delayed. And if we opt-in, home duties should be delegated fifty-fifty, after some careful negotiation. This is the ethical, progressive way to start a family.
Millennial women of a certain class have grown up internalizing these messages. We heed the lessons of our foremothers. We know that whatever maternal urges we may have, they have to wait. And there is nothing inherently “female” about care-giving, anyway. If we think there is, it is because we have been brainwashed by dominant social norms.
But what if reality were not so simple?
What if the notion that gender is a fiction—(that psychologically, physically and emotionally, men and women are pretty much the same)—actually hinders some of the changes that would make life better for a great deal of women?
When Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique in the early ‘60s, she had already gone through early motherhood, and she had already established herself as a freelance journalist. She urged unfulfilled housewives (or mothers) to experience the dignity of paid work, but in her narrative, there was no question of ever having to make a choice between the two.
Since Friedan’s seminal text, paid work has been the feminist prescription for the problem with no name. And this prescription—in concert with a free-market system—has revolutionized all Western liberal economies for the better. Countries that have not legislated for equal opportunities for women flounder in economic mediocrity. So in 2014, women’s participation in the economy is more than an issue of feminine identity or middle-class self-actualization. Our progress depends on it. If a society handicaps a woman's ability to generate social or economic capital, the society is handicapping itself.
If a society handicaps a woman's ability to generate social or economic capital, the society is handicapping itself.
It turns out, however, that combining work and motherhood—particularly early motherhood—is not so easy. Women must engage with the workforce (and higher education) on men’s terms. That is, we must prove that we are capable of economic or intellectual productivity during our peak childbearing years. It is an emotional and physical feat not expected of men.
This challenge affects women of all races, classes, and backgrounds who have, or want to have, children. Even for women who work and study on university campuses, which are the home of the purportedly progressive gender-studies departments, this challenge finds no amelioration.
Legal scholar Mary Ann Mason, in Do Babies Matter? (2013), points out that in the U.S., pregnancy and childbirth are the biggest contributors to female drop-out rates in grad-school and post-doctoral positions. Married mothers are 35% less likely to gain tenure-track positions than their male counterparts, while single women without children are almost as likely as men to gain tenured jobs.
Despite these facts, when it comes to gender gaps in income, political representation, and more, we tend to focus most of our attention on sexual harassment and implicit sex biases. But if we were to direct our efforts to what the empirical evidence suggests is the most pressing concern for women—family responsibilities—we might make more progress towards leveling the playing field. U.S. workplaces could start by offering paid parental leave, which would help them retain talented, experienced women in their workforce (as well as helping those women fulfill their responsibilities as mothers). And beyond the first year following child-birth, research shows that women’s overwhelming preference is to work part-time, while having access to affordable childcare. Accommodating these preferences would ensure that more women could participate in the economy without sacrificing their family lives.
Of course, no top-down policy, however well-designed, will solve any problem entirely, and some workplaces cannot afford to provide the benefits that young parents want. Small businesses and start-ups, for example, require around-the-clock dedication. But arguably, public and private higher education institutions are different. Completing graduate school, followed by a post-doctoral appointment, takes many years and can be a long journey. And while education is a profit-driven industry, it also retains a vital public function. Ideally, talented young women who aspire to become academics, but who wish to start their families also, would be able to do so.
Women’s participation in the economy is now a fact of life, and there is no longer an excuse for dismissing children.
It is not unusual for some feminist scholars to argue that making special accommodations for women sets women back. Women shouldn’t be treated any differently from men, and if they are, they’re likely to lose respect. This argument had merit a few decades ago, but for my generation it rings hollow. Apart from a few isolated outposts of sexism, women generally do not have to worry about receiving condescending treatment like they once did. Girls born after second wave of the women’s movement have been raised in egalitarian families with working mothers. We do not know a world in which women’s economic independence is not a reality.
Similarly, for reasons that probably made sense at the time, the women’s movement, historically, was afraid of the family. Earlier feminists who wanted to free women from the kitchen sink had to put family a distant second, to the priority of establishing economic participation.
But in 2014, women’s participation in the economy is a fact of life, and there is no longer an excuse for dismissing children. The desires of the majority of women to combine career and family are legitimate. Some five decades after Friedan wrote, it should not be an impossible or unrealistic task to implement structural changes to help women achieve their dreams.
There is reason for hope, however, that change is on the way, especially in academia. At UC Berkeley, and a handful of other universities, faculty are aiming to support not only doctoral candidates who become parents, but also students. Mary Ann Mason herself has been at the forefront of advocating for student equity at Berkeley and has developed a suite of measures to help campuses become more family-friendly. The new policies include subsidized back-up child-care, and paid child leave for grad students and post-docs. Stopping the tenure clock for one year is becoming standard practice. Moving towards a part-time tenure track for primary caregivers (mostly women), however, will be the change that will ultimately revolutionize campus culture.
Career tracks incompatible with raising young children are inherently anti-social.
While there will always be circumstances in which flexible conditions for parents are not realistic, we must raise our expectations. The current models for our professions were conceived well before women had entered into the workforce. Career tracks that demand so much time and energy from women (and men) that they cannot succeed while raising young children are inherently anti-social. We can do better.
Denying the weight that babies exert on a woman’s time and body is a pernicious and toxic form of sexism. And to acknowledge the importance of babies is not to “romanticize” motherhood: it is simply to be realistic about it. And it is to be fair to our children.
Mothers do not need to be worshipped as inherently life-affirming nurturers. We just need to be seen as individuals whose work at home is important, work that in the long term benefits us all.
And we need to be afforded the flexibility to do our work properly.
Claire Lehmann is a mother and graduate student in psychology.