Webcast Recap

Author: Joan Williams, Distinguished Professor of Law, 1066 Foundation Chair, and Director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law; Commentator: Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream

"The 21st-century U.S. workplace is ideally suited for the 19th-century workforce," according to Joan Williams. The best jobs in today's economy are designed around the bodies and traditional life patterns of men, with no allowances for taking time off to give birth or for childrearing. In the past, women in good jobs were pressured into conforming to these norms. Williams argued that a new norm must strike a balance between work and family. This shift will benefit both men and women, as there are increasing pressures on men to take on on a larger share of child care in two-income households. Even so, she said, "discrimination triggered by motherhood is the single strongest form of gender discrimination in today's workplace."

Reshaping the Work-Family Debate unfolds the nature of work/family conflict in the United States. Today, motherhood is perceived as "opting out" of the paid labor force. Those who attempt to remain in their jobs are often "only one sick child away from losing their jobs." The situation is hardly better in "tag-team" households, where two parents juggle work and child care responsibilities, while both jobs are necessary to keep the family afloat financially.

Williams explored the reasons workplace leave and flexibility policies in the U.S. so often marginalize those who take advantage of them. In a world where the number of hours worked is often the measure of "ideal worker," women who take advantage of family leave policies are less successful when it comes to advancement and promotion. This, according to Williams, is another reason why a new norm is necessary to achieve gender equality.

Moreover, she noted, the U.S. lacks basic supports for wage-earning parents. "Why is the U.S. the only developed country on earth that lacks paid maternity leave, pre-kindergarten care, part-time parity, and elder care, while these structures are taken for granted throughout much of the rest of the world?," she asked.

This sentiment was mirrored by Barbara Ehrenreich in her commentary. As she put it, the work-family debate is a problem of arithmetic. A single mother with two children simply cannot support them on $8 per hour. In her analysis of how we got to this point, Ehrenreich cited the fact that welfare does not acknowledge family care as work. This leaves single mothers in a position where they must take a job in order to receive government support, but without any provision for childcare. These complications have brought the working class to the point where it "can not reproduce itself" because of the economic pressures it faces from all sides. On the professional side of the work-family debate, she highlighted the pressures faced by white-collar women. Citing background research for her book Bait and Switch, she found that motherhood is "a blot on your record" when reentering the workforce.

Ehrenreich then challenged the audience to think about how to bridge the class divide that prevents family-friendly legislation from moving forward. In order to do this, she said, we must acknowledge changes in the working class, which has moved beyond the age of stay-at-home mothers and must now face the reality that two incomes are needed to support a family. Noting that white-collar workers have also suffered in this economy, Ehrenreich suggested that this may provide "some basis for unity around economic issues."

By Andrew Bedell
Sonya Michel, Director, United States Studies