Although I am somewhat hesitant to add another voice to an already loud debate about the work-family conflict that has arisen again in the last month or so, I am finding it difficult to stay quiet. As the working mother of a 3 ½ year old and a 3 month old, this is the legal and policy issue that affects me most these days.
When Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote her piece in the Atlantic, arguing that women in top government and business positions are leaving because of the difficulty of combining work and family, she predictably drew loud praise and equally loud critique (including an interesting post by Sherilyn Ifill, linked to from Concurring Opinions). But then, Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s newly appointed CEO, added her voice to the debate (perhaps unwittingly) when she told Fortune that she was pregnant and that her maternity leave would be “a few weeks long, and I’ll work throughout it.” That comment brought a new onslaught of responses including criticism that she was doing a disservice to all working women whose employers would now expect them to “work throughout” their maternity leaves.
Whether this is a male/female issue or merely a parenting issue that cuts across gender, what is clear from the numerous opinions out there is that one size does not fit all. In fact, if I am any example, one approach might not even work throughout one person’s working/parenting life. As a first time mom and associate at a law firm, I took a 6½ month leave, made possible by a hefty pay check and 12 weeks of paid leave. Now that it’s my second time around and I am transitioning to academia, I chose to work from home through the first few months after my son was born and (mostly) don’t regret it.
The notion of privileging women or parents by building in options for them is not new and is, in fact, the dominant approach in many European countries and in Israel (which I have written about in the past). But it has not been the American way. Might we be changing? In my prior article, I wrote about the emergence of the Israeli approach as a function of the society’s overall collectivist culture and a national interest in promoting reproduction and the parent-child bond. I am wondering whether there is a chance that Americans could recognize this too.
Of course, that would not be the end of the debate. What would the privileging of women or parents mean for equality? If women (by law) gain options that men don’t have, do they come out equal, better, or worse? For example, if we mandate paid maternity leave as some countries do, will employers stop hiring fertile age women out of fear that they will exercise this option and be less productive than men? What if the option is non-gendered and open to all parents? Will men exercise the option or continue to feel pressure to return to work immediately after a child is born? Will women? While the answers to these questions remain unclear, one thing is obvious—this is not a problem that parents can solve on their own. Beyond the debate in the media, it is high time for a serious debate in government about remedies (beyond the Family Medical Leave Act) for working parents who are having trouble being good at both jobs.