Monday, November 25, 2013

Staying home versus opting out, and the role of social class Part II

Part 1 of this post can be found here.

Part II speaks directly to the article in question. Note: in this post, I am replying to the article, and so I am assuming married (and divorced), heterosexual households, because that is what the author of the article wrote about.

Photo Credit: BonBon Break

First of all, Ms. Read's situation sucks. It sucks! She asks for no sympathy, but she gets it from me, nonetheless. She and I became stay-at-home mothers just about the same time, and there seemed to be a push for (and push back against, because anything surrounding motherhood tends to be controversial, it seems) for middle class moms to stay home. And there were other moms like me, staying home because it made the greatest sense financially.

I do not argue her outcomes or even what she is suggesting. For a lot of women, especially in this current economic climate, staying at home does not make sense. For women like her, who have stayed home only to find themselves in her position, it is a terrible wake up call to the realities of our capitalistic, patriarchal society. However, I think her solutions, while valid, are too individualistic. We must also fight for structural change.

Photo Credit: Cinco Mom

While studying for my qualifying exams, I continually returned to an article written in 2001 by Budig and England . In writing about the motherhood penalty, they state that pretty much all of society benefits from a mother's work. Husbands, of course, but also teachers, employers, and the general public are all free riders. This is because when a kid is raised in a caring environment, he or she is more likely to do well in school, turn into a productive worker, and be a good citizen and neighbor. This is definitely not a one-to-one input-output model, as there are other factors, of course. But kids who have strong family environments tend to do well in other areas of their lives. That is the first part of Budig and England's argument.

The second is this: women are pretty much the only ones who pay for the benefit that everyone enjoys. Although the proverb states that it takes a village, the reality is that the entire village benefits from a mom's disproportionate investment.
Photo Credit: Mother and Child

Budig and England argue that women do the bulk of child rearing, have lower wages on average, and are more likely to reduce or eliminate their source of income when kids come along. Granted, the man in the household may pay as well, in the form of decreased family income. However, the man often compensates by making more money in his job. Since his wife is doing the housework, this frees him up to pursue his work goals.

In fact, a new study by Cha and Weeden (2013) finds that a large part of the wage gap can be explained through overtime. Men put in more hours in paid work than women do. Why is this? A big part of it is that women are doing so much unpaid work at home that they don't have the time or energy to do overtime, or they choose to work in fields that don't require it, with the knowledge and understanding that there is stuff to do at home. I want to stress that there is nothing inherently wrong with this when a couple decides this is the best plan for them.

It is the sad reality that perpetuates an Escher-esque feedback loop: couples realize that the man has greater financial opportunities (because men make more than women in general, and fields that are more heavily male pay more than fields that are more heavily female), so the woman cuts back, which leads to the man making more.

Image Credit: When Falls the Colliseum

The problem comes in when a society does not value women's and mothers' work. So, women cut back or stay home to care for house and family, which helps her husband move up in his career and helps society have nicer people. Then when she tries to go back to work, she is told,

"You made these choices!" (Photo: Penn State Leadership).

And if she gets divorced, too bad.

Photo: The Bliss Follower

Should have thought of your career the whole time.

"Why should we have to pay for her choices?" the chorus goes. This negates the benefits "everyone else" enjoys at her hands.

My suggestions to "fix this" (haha!) problem are as follows:

There needs to be a national leave policy that allows men and women to stay home with their children for an amount of time. Sweden's policy is awesome. There is a ton of paid leave, and some portion of it MUST be used by the father, or it is lost. With this policy, dads can be more involved with the child care and employers aren't as likely to discriminate against women. When policies are maternity-only, companies may choose to not hire women or offer them less money, since the company will invest in the woman and then she may take an extended leave. In Sweden, everybody leaves.

Companies should work with women who are planning to stay home with their kids. I think this would mostly work for corporate jobs, not service, although there may be some factions of the service industry that could benefit. Think about this: if those companies set up programs that offered women partial work-at-home, offered continued training and networking events, had a mentor check in every few months, what would happen? Well, that woman is going to have stayed abreast of the field, and her contacts will be fresh. She will (may) feel a loyalty to the company, and would be cheaper than training a new hire.

There needs to be compensation for primary caregivers when a divorce happens. It is so wrong that a woman can give up so much of her own job potential in order to prop up a man's career, and none of her work is taken into account. The man goes on to increase his earnings year after year, while the wife may start at ground zero, now saddled with childcare expenses and duties as well. We need to figure out a way to account for the caregiver's share of current and future earnings. It is only fair.

Reform Welfare Reform. Many women are in situations like I was. Cannot afford good quality childcare. If they divorce (or never marry), the state ends up paying for childcare while the moms go off and work a crappy job. Why not allow these moms the dignity that I got, by caring for my own kids?

I would love to see some sort of exit or transitional counseling for caregivers who are planning to take time off. Again, I think this is more for people in corporate careers. Counselors could tell the mom (I will just insert mom, although this should be available for anyone) what the field might look like 5, 10, and 15 years from now. The sessions would offer advice on how to exit gracefully, how to stay connected, what parts of the job the mom should stay abreast of. Periodic check ins with this counselor would help the mom make sure she is staying on target. I think that a lot of moms leave with a really vague plan. They will stay home for now, and see how it goes. If moms had a clearer image of what potential paths looked like, the plan may be less vague, and fewer women might end up in Read's situation.

Caregivers would do well to think about their careers while at home. In academia, certain types of service work are privileged over other types (guess what? The type of work women typically do is considered less valuable to tenure committees than the service work men do), and I think it is the same in the rest of the world. When women are home, they would benefit from devoting some of their time to volunteer work or training (college or otherwise) that enhances their resume.

Photo Credit: Rolling Out 

Men need to step up to the plate. When women stay at home, the assumption is that since she is there, she might as well also do all the cooking and cleaning. This makes sense up to a point, but sadly those old habits die hard. When the woman goes back to work, much of the work continues to fall onto the mom's shoulders. Dads need to remember that caring for a little person is a full time job by itself, and it is a job with real value. Creating the next generation of humans is one of the most important jobs of all. So, men need to make sure they do their share around the house, and give their wives plenty of time to pursue activities to recharge themselves personally and professionally.When I say professionally, I mean the profession of motherhood as well as the paid profession the woman will reenter.

Authors, scholars, and policymakers need to stop assuming that middle class, professional households are the only legitimate ones. So much of the opting-out debate is strictly middle class, and we mustn't forget that this is not a reality for a great number of American households.

These are just a few suggestions. I could go on, but I think this a good, incredibly optimistic place to start!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Staying home versus opting out, and the role of social class

I ran into a lengthy article about the pitfalls of the stay-at-home career.The author stayed home with her 2 kids, trading her journalism career for freelance work. Now divorced with kids nearing college age, she is broke and trying to get her career back on track, with little success. Meanwhile, her ex-husband, who is also a journalist, is experiencing great levels of success at his career. She states that, while she loved staying home with her kids, she is not sure that it was ultimately worth it, and that she would advise new mothers to choose a different route.

I understand and appreciate her argument. However, I would like to offer a different perspective. For today's post, I will focus on my personal experiences with staying home. In tomorrow's post, I will turn to my concerns and insights related directly to Katy Read's article and argument.

Arne Kalleberg distinguishes between good jobs and bad jobs. Good jobs are the type that Ms. Read had post-kids: solid, good paying, with a clear career ladder, benefits, and security. Bad jobs are the type she had as a stay-at-home mom: shaky, with low wages, little security or room for advancement, lacking in benefits. Bad jobs are on the upswing in our country.

My personal tale is one from inside the world of bad jobs. My husband and I got married in 1995, and had our first baby at the end of 1996. My husband was transitioning from the economically tumultuous world of front-of-house restaurant work to (we thought) the steady path of automotive repair. He took out a loan for an expensive but fast private automotive school, and did really well at it. However, the real-life work of the mechanic was different, and he went through a series of jobs before getting out and going back to the restaurant biz. We decided that I would stay home for the first year and then re-evaluate. When my little guy was 9 months old, I went back to work.
Oh, I haven't told you about my path. I was working in retail management when I got pregnant. I started the job as a part time sales associate before I got married and moved up to assistant manager within the first year or so. And then our store closed, and I went to work at another store, with a 40 mile commute. I think the closure was sometime between the marriage and the pregnancy. I worked up until I was 8 months pregnant. Then I started having blood pressure issues and stopped working. Because I missed some paperwork, I was denied sick pay, and denied maternity pay. I did have really good insurance through my crappy retail job though, so the birth was nearly covered.

So, why did I decide to stay home? A few reasons. First of all, I had read a lot about how much a mom's (yes,it was the 1990s, and it was assumed if a parent was staying home, it was the mom) income really amounted to, when figuring in child care costs, transportation, and convenience factors. My salary was low, and it would have been hard to justify the 40 mile commute on top of child care. Although we did move closer after the baby was born, it was still 40-50 miles round trip per workday.

I was also a product of my time. I am a Gen Xer, and many of my cohort have chosen to stay home, due to memories and experiences as the latch key kid generation. I was never a latch key kid, but I was the youngest of 9 kids, and never had much of a relationship with my mom. I wanted it to be different for my kids. I wanted to be fully present for them.

(Obviously I wasn't thinking about all three of these guys when I made my decision, but you get the point).
I knew this wouldn't be so easy in my current career track.

The job I had during pregnancy had a very easily identified pay scale. A person could be a part time sales associate. There was no such thing as a full time sales associate in this firm. The next step up was to assistant manager, which was an hourly position. The hourly wage was higher than sales, but not to living wage, I don't think. Remember this was nearly 20 years ago, so I don't remember exact facts and figures. Assistant managers usually worked 37 hours per week. During busy seasons, we might work more and get a little bit of overtime. Holidays were paid at time and a half. The next step up was manager. It involved a pay bump, but now the worker was salaried and so was encouraged to work 44 hours per week. When overtime was needed, it was encouraged that the manager do it, since she was salaried and would not affect the bottom line. I seem to remember my boss trying to skirt a line as a single mother. She was an assistant manager who got her day care covered by a state grant. When she was promoted to manager, she negotiated her salary with that in mind, because her new position would push her just over the line set by the state, and she would lose her child care benefits. So, she wanted to make enough from her promotion that she didn't go backwards. I think the salary was in the $30,000 range, for a 44-hour per week job. There may have been small bonuses at the end of the year if the store did well. The next rung of the ladder was district manager, which brought a person into the $50,000-$60,000 range, but also meant 60-70-hour workweeks with extensive travel to all the stores in the manager's district. This was a good paying job, but not a family-friendly one.

So, my choices were to stick with the low-paying job and try to work up to the higher-paying one, or drop out. I decided to try the stay-at-home mom gig. I would like to speak to privilege for a minute. First, I acknowledge that I was in a place of tremendous privilege. I had a husband who could make some money and a stable relationship, so I knew he was sticking around for a while. I lived in a state that had really good programs for the poor, and had excellent free resources. I was in walking distance to a library, and was able to live in a ridiculously safe neighborhood on one tiny salary. The opportunity costs for me were pretty low, since my job wasn't great and I knew I could hop back on with little difficulty a few years down the road.

However, there is another side of privilege. You know those former corporate moms who talk about the parties they go to where they have to deal with the "what do you do?" question by enduring the sneers that come with the answer, "I am a stay-at-home-mom"? This is the privilege I am talking about. Believe me, the same reactions can be found when one says, "I work in retail" or "I am in the restaurant business," unless the respondent is in high management, a chef, owns the business, or is paying his/her way through school. These choices are not considered life goals. So, in this way, staying home with my kids was a step up. Yes, the money sucked. But! I had full autonomy of my day. I could pursue literary pursuits to my hearts' content. I got to read up on child development literature like a scholar, and further my understanding of my new career. And, instead of my knowledge going to clothe lady executives (I was working in women's apparel) and line the pockets of those working in corporate headquarters, my knowledge and experiences were going to shape the next generation of my bloodline. My own offspring, created and incubated by me. If the retail job was the essence of Marx's alienation of labor, my position as a stay-at-home mom was the empowerment of my labor. I was my own boss, creating my own product (in a sense). And it was important work. During this stage of the 90s, there an upsurge of folks who were telling us kids needed parents at home, and so I was validated for my choices. This was also the period in which I delved into Christian evangelicalism (when pregnant with my second baby), and I received all sorts of confirmation that I was doing the right thing within that genre.

So, I stayed home with my first baby, and it was wonderful. We were ridiculously poor, and my husband's first (and last) year in the automotive business was downright frightening, with him cycling through 7 jobs with periods of unemployment in between. He finally landed a machinist job that seemed great. It was work he enjoyed and was good at, the pay was good, the company seemed stable. I got a part-time retail job to get out of the house and put some more money into our tiny bank account.

When I was 8 months pregnant with baby #2, my husband's company had to downsize, and last one hired was the first one fired. So, we now had one toddler and one baby coming soon. My husband needed work fast and so got a job in the restaurant business again. He tried to get back into machining, but he couldn't find any place that would take him. They all wanted 2 years experience, and he had 6 or 7 months. He went back to the erratic hours of the restaurant world, and this made it quite difficult for me to work even part time, since we couldn't afford child care for 2. What is more, neither of us would be working 9-5 jobs. If I got back into retail management, this would mean at least 3 nights a week of slogging the babies home from child care after I got off my shift at 9:30 or 10 pm. Not the best environment for young people who need solid sleep routines.

At this point, my husband could definitely make more than me, and I was breastfeeding and the pump intimidated me. So, once again I was home with no outside employment. A few years (and another child) later, I decided to get my bachelor's degree. College and our situation went hand-in-hand. I was able to devote time to the boys, but still excel in my school. My first two years were done online. My next years took place when they had all reached school age. My classes happened when they were in school. At the same time, since we were already broke, there was no financial decision to wrestle. I wasn't losing any income to go back to school, nor did I have to figure out how to balance work, school, and family. It was just school and family. Since we were so broke, grants took care of all or nearly all of the cost. Once I reached the four-year college, I took out loans to supplement our income. Thanks to schooling (which maybe I got carried away with, since 8 years later, I am still in school!) I have the potential to move into the middle class upon graduation. Yes, there may have been more direct routes to get there, but I sure did get a lot of time with my kids, while building my career skills by doing it my way. Of course, my way has worked for me, but that doesn't mean that I think it is the right way for every mom. Families are not monolithic, and we each have to make decisions based on our own circumstances.

So, what is my takeaway? Do I regret staying home with my kids? No. I enjoyed staying home with them and I think it was beneficial to them. I don't thing a stay-at-home parent is automatically better for a child, but looking at what we could have afforded for day care, and the erratic nature that my works hours would have been, I think it was the best decision for our family.

Whenever I read these Opting Out debate pieces, they tend to be from the perspective of the middle class mom. I am writing this to give voice to the working class and poor families that struggle with this decision. Sometimes, low-income parents both have to work in order to make ends meet, and sometimes, low-income families cannot afford for both parents to work. I do regret not waiting until we were more financially stable to begin with, and I wish that I would have had a career that I would have cared about enough to struggle about whether to leave or not.

That is my personal story. Read my more sociological perspective of the article here: Part 2

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Gender and the Media, Disney Junior

I have started blogging about gender representations in preschool programming. I am writing it in my media blog, but I think it is also an important subject for gender and work, because attitudes about gender and abilities start young and influence decisions for a life time. I think media has a tremendous influence on those attitudes. Here is the link. This analysis will take place over the next month, and probably longer, so if you are interested in the subject, please subscribe to my media blog to get updates.

Critical Mass Media

Picture: The Truth About Mummy

Thanks for looking.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Are good intentions enough? The gendered toy edition

GoldieBlox commercial

My first reaction to this was that it is a cool idea, and the commercial is cool. Originally, I was only upset with the commentary surrounding it, from "Girls that can do this should go to Harvard!" (which assumes that only exceptional girls can build cool things) or "This product is going to get girls into engineering (as if the choice of toys is the only thing standing in the way of girls becoming engineering, nothing structural going on).

Looking at this and thinking about it more, and it is a good gesture, but it is kind of ticking me off. First of all, the actual toy. It doesn't look like you get much for the money.

For $19.99, you get this:
34 pieces and a book. Apparently there are 9 design ideas, although the pictures all look pretty much the same.

For the same price, you can get this from K'Nex:
250 pieces, 10 designs. As you can see, there is a lot of variety.

I don't have any girls, I am the mother of three boys. I have 2 boys that love LEGO and K'Nex. The oldest boy prefers to read. But when those 2 boys play with LEGO or K'nex, they may build the model according to the plans once (and they may not), and then they throw the book aside and mod it to their hearts' desire. With 250 K'Nex, the possibilities are endless. With 33 Tinker Toy-type pieces? Not too many different designs. This does not necessarily make it a bad toy, but the creators are marketing it as engineering launch pad. It seems to me that modding toys is an important cognitive step towards a passion for engineering. In that respect, this toy falls short, in my opinion.

I really saw red when I watched the behind the scenes video for the commercial. The people who actually build the Rube Goldberg machine are almost all men!! So, yes, the girls are allowed to play in the men's world, but the men still design the game. I see three women, maybe four, and they all seem to have more background roles, except the camera-woman. ALthough at one point, even she is being directed by the man. This is a male vision. Even the interviews with the girls are conducted by men!! Isn't it important for girls to see strong, capable women in engineering roles if we want women to cross into engineering? According to this article, one of the most important factors to get girls into science is the presence of female role models.

Another thing, I am concerned with the notion that an ad will change a girl's career trajectory. Think I am being hyperbolic? No one would argue that an ad or a toy will have that level of influence?
Exhibit A: From Slate
Exhibit B: From The Guardian

This is a well-intentioned but misguided argument, that with a few tweaks, everything will be okay for women.Toys and ads and representations are enormously important. There are many barriers for women and girls.Stereotype threat is very real. If girls believe they are bad at math or science, they may do worse at these subjects, or claim they are uninterested in order to skirt the failure they expect to experience. Math teachers may have different expectations or attitudes towards boys and girls. My friend's daughter is enrolled in a school for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Her daughter took an engineering course in her freshman year and liked the content. However, the teacher explained that college engineering professors are really brutal towards women (thanks for creating a potential confirmation bias), and so he then (not sure if this was conscious or not) treated her in such a way that she got turned off from wanting to pursue engineering. I think that giving girls cool toys that inspire imagination is great. I also think we already have lots of them. So, maybe we could start marketing building toys to girls? But we cannot forget that there are systemic and structural forces that need to be challenged in order to really get more girls and women into STEM.

You know what would have been great? If in the commercial, they gave the girls raw materials, and maybe an idea, and recorded what the girls came up with. Don't assume they can't. It is patronizing. Retailers used to do this:


But not as much any more. After a lot of outcry about the LEGO Friends line, LEGO did try to recreate this ad. Commentary can be found here and here.

Finally, I am kind of offended by this:
GoldieBlox I get what their saying and I appreciate the attempt. However, I think it feeds into a common trope. Stephanie Coontz coined the term "The Hottie Mystique," which is the idea that girls and young women are now able and expected to achieve greatness, and do everything men and boys can, but with the added pressure of looking hot and being a sexual object at the same time. So, why in this day and age are we still pushing the princess ideal? Notice the message isn't, "not a princess" it is "More than Just a Princess" which reads (to me anyway) as, "Yes, I am a princess, but I am also more.

That is the end of my rant. I am not the only one who is upset by this, but others have found other very good reasons to question this campaign.