Author: June Carbone

6

Book Review: Gender Pressures (Reviewing Williams’s Reshaping the Work-Family Debate)

This book review is co-authored by Naomi Cahn.

Joan C. Williams, Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter (Harvard 2010), 304 pp.

As the unemployment rate increases, as we chart the rise of the Tea Party and the Republican Party’s ability to express disdain for the unemployed without significant political cost, Americans lack a roadmap for the role of class and gender in the new American landscape.  Joan Williams’ book, Reshaping the Work-Family Debate:  Why Men and Class Matter (Harvard 2010), supplies that roadmap.  The book creates an innovative critical framework for examining the relationship between law, work and family in the post-industrial economy and for ensuring that both men and women are included in any revisioning of this relationship.

The book builds on Williams’ earlier research exploring the maleness of the workplace and expands it dramatically.  Williams starts with the caustic observation that “we still have a workplace perfectly designed for the workforce of the 1960’s.”  That workplace depended on the availability of “ideal workers,” who could meet employer expectations premised on the availability of someone else to tend to the children, run the necessary household errands, and make the work-family relationship work.  While today’s workplaces successfully assimilate women who participate on the same terms as men, they remain remarkably resistant to creating more supportive environments that would assist parents – male or female – in balancing the competing demands between work and family.  The curious question is why.  Williams makes the case that more flexible workplaces would benefit employers and that the U.S. is so far from the norm that it can boast “the most family-hostile public policy in the developed world.”  She argues that the key to changing it, as her subtitle suggests, requires bringing class and the construction of gender into the debate.  She shows how the hidden injuries of class fuel gender traditionalism and the culture wars associated with a conservative resurgence.

Where the book moves most significantly beyond Williams’ earlier work is placing the debate over the workplace at the intersection of class and gender.  The first part of the book thus retells the story of work-family conflict.  The initial chapter takes on the story that while well-educated women are not more likely tot drop out of the work place, they may face the most intense choices between the remade ideal of super- mothering (the new helicopter parents) and workplace norms that prize total dedication.  The second chapter then tells the often heartbreaking stories of the dilemmas working class parents face; these dilemmas are often not so much about time as flexibility – the inability to make a personal phone call can affect children’s lives.

The middle part of the book links these developments to the remaking of workplace norms of masculinity.  In 1965, class had little to do with leisure; executives and union members worked about the same hours. Today, the American elite works longer hours than most of the rest of the world while working class men put in fewer hours than they did in 1965.  The new “macho” norm for law firm associates or Silicon Valley engineers is total dedication; for the working class men on an oil rig, it continues to be physical bluster.  Williams argues, however, that both competitive norms not only drive women away, they are also bad for business.  Industry productivity goes up when the company takes into account the costs of attrition and the lack of cooperation.  Workplaces with mixed rather than macho gender norms outproduce the competition.

Read More