Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Full-Time Blues - New York Times

Jobs and Careers

The Full-Time Blues - New York Times: "Senator Edward Kennedy and Representative Carolyn Maloney are circulating draft legislation modeled on the British workplace flexibility law that would give employees — all workers, not just moms or parents — the right to request a flexible schedule. The legislation — which would require employers to discuss flexibility with workers who request it, but wouldn’t require them to honor the requests — has a little bit of something for everyone: protection from retaliation for workers who fear letting on that they’re eager to cut back, protection from “unfunded mandates” for businesses. Critics might say the proposed legislation’s touch is so soft as to be almost imperceptible, but it’s a start. At the very least, it’s a chance to stop emoting about maternal love and war and guilt and have a productive conversation."

The results of the latest survey, chewed over ad nauseum on blogs and lists I read, a substantial number of mothers would prefer part-time to full-time work. And, apart from hardened feminists, the response has been: why not?

The reason why not is that this is the way things have always been for most women and it is the worst of all possible worlds: most women don't have either the opportunity to pursue careers or make lives for themselves as career housewives--women have jobs. Men, a lucky few, have careers: they work to achieve, even of only to achieve high salaries or to attain prestige and power. Women work for others, to fill in and help out: putting hubby through school doing pink-collar drudge work, hired out when the family needs additional cash, sent home when the family needs child care and domestic services and part-time to drudge in both the labor force and the home when the family needs both money and domestic services. Women are, and always have been, a reserve army of support workers, deployed as needed and used.

When I was a child, one of my fantasies was to be the ultimate housewife. I dreamed of having the perfect house--exquisite furniture and decor, perfectly managed and organized. The house would be my creation, my work of art, the ultimate expression of my self: in one version of my fantasy I dreamed of literally building it myself and, in most versions, I imagined making at least some of the furniture, painting the pictures on the walls and decorating the place with various crafts projects. I would cook superb gourmet meals, aesthetically presented, keep perfect accounts, save huge amounts of money and make even more by playing the stock market. In my free time, I would improve myself: learn to play the piano well, read, write, learn languages, create glorious flower arrangements and become spectacularly proficient at all arts and crafts. I would polish myself, and my house--the expression of myself--to burn with a hard, gemlike flame. I would be a career housewife--I would achieve, not for my family's benefit (husband and children were always vague in my fantasy) but for pure self-agrandisment.

That is not feasible for most women and never has been because whether at home or in the labor force women have jobs not careers, "doing for" others, supporting others and filling in where the need arises--always second-rate, always mediocre, practical, dependable, flexible, a resource to be used. Part-time work makes both serious careers in the labor force and career housewifing impossible--it means compromising both projects, being unable to go gung-ho with no brakes on at either of them, doing a half-assed job at both.

The Kennedy-Maloney bill seems promising--it doesn't tie flexible work to motherhood or even to parenting and care-giving responsibilities. But given the way things are you can bet that it will be overwhelmingly women, particularly women with young children who will take the bait--not because women's tastes are overwhelmingly different from men's but because their circumstances are different. There are glass ceilings and all the way up to them hurdles and filters: women know that their career prospects are limited, that going part-time, asking for flex-time or otherwise showing lack of commitment has few opportunity costs. Moreover women know that regardless of how many hours they work outside the home they will still be saddled with the bulk of child care and domestic chores. Brute tastes are an unknown: we can't assume that men and women in the aggregate have the same tastes, or different tastes. But we can see plainly that their circumstances are different, that the costs, benefits and risks of cutting back on work are different, and that is enough to explain some of the differences in behavior.

Whether it explains all is another matter. Maybe even factoring out differences in incentives, opportunity costs and circumstances men and women would still behave differently. Feminists, including me, are not out to claim dogmatically that men and women in the aggregate have exactly the same tastes, aspirations or abilities. The point is that at least some differences in behavior are a consequence of different circumstances, in particular differences in wages and opportunities on the job, and differences in the work load at home. And even more importantly, these differences perpetuate themselves. Women don't invest in work because employers don't invest in women; employers don't invest in women because women don't invest in work. Then there are those pesky externalities: women's choices have fall-out for other women. The choice of visible numbers of women to go part-time or ask for accommodations leads employers to make predictions about the behavior of other women and proceed accordingly. It perpetuates the idea of women as second-rate, less committed, less intense: good, solid, useful workers but not high-flyers.

However well-intentioned, even if this bill does not explicitly target women, what it would offer de facto is a kinder, gentler Mommy Track. The gender-neutrality of this bill is a fake, like talk about "parenting" when mothering is what's clearly intended. If this bill passes it will be women overwhelmingly who take the bait and that will perpetuate the standard arrangement, the worst of all possible worlds for women: drudge work at home and drudge work in the labor force--for every woman, two jobs and no career.

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