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Books: Reshaping the Work-Family Debate

December 5, 2010 | Books,Devra Renner,Economics,Education,Ethics,Family,Getting sick,Journalism,Leslie Bennetts,Linda Hirshman,Motherhood,Norway,Parenting,Politics,PR,Research,Sarah Palin,U.S. government,Vacation,Work,Working Mother

“Writ small, this book is about reframing debates about work and family. … Writ large, this book is about reframing American politics. Work-family issues have not been placed at the center of an analysis of U.S. politics, but it is time to rethink the assumption that they do not belong there.”

Wow. Joan C. Williams knows how to start off a book. She knows how to end it and fill the middle, too. But I’ll let you find that out by reading Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter. (I highly recommend reading it. Williams is brilliant.)

It’s what she said in a Wilson Center discussion with Barbara Ehrenreich in September, though, that really gets to the heart of the matter of this book:

Litigation has accomplished a lot, but federal employment law cannot give us social subsidies or workers’ rights. The only way we can get those things is through legislation. The only way we can get that legislation is by very significantly shifting the political culture in the United States.

The only way to shift the political culture is to start a national conversation about gender pressures on men, she said. Until we do that, we won’t see much progress for women.

Devra Renner and Aviva Pflock, authors of Mommy Guilt, will understand this book. Even though their book is about mothers, most of the work they do is about parenting. They spend a lot of time reminding others that parenting is something both mothers and fathers do.

Statistics show that both mothers and fathers in the United States feel the scales overwhelmingly tip in favor of work and short-change their family lives.

When asked, American parents — 90% of American mothers and 95% of American fathers — say that they wish they had more time with their children. These levels are sharply lower in Europe. (p. 2, Introduction)

Why are these levels lower in Europe? Because European countries structure workplaces around their workforces, recognizing that everyone has a right to a personal life.

They have a saying in Norway, “We don’t live to work, we work to live.” It’s just the opposite in America, a Norwegian might say, as he straps his baby on his back for a mountain hike — one of many during his nine weeks of “pappa leave.” When the leave is over, he will return to his 35-hour workweek, which enables him to pick up his child from daycare in the afternoon and still have several hours of family time before bedtime. Every day.

A Swedish father wrote a guest post for me about his experience as a parent in Sweden. He asked three years ago, regarding non-existent benefits in the United States, “… how do we change the system to make it easier to combine children, family and work?”

He’s not the only one who’s been asking that question. Many have been asking how to get family-friendly legislation passed. Williams looks at why we haven’t been able to get it. To answer the first question, we must first have an answer to the second question.

For one, there’s a class culture gap that polarizes employees and keeps them from coming together on specific issues.

For another — and Williams doesn’t discuss this in her book — companies don’t want legislation. They want to handle “family-friendly benefits” on their own. That means offering very little with a big splash of advertising and PR to make some magazine’s “best companies” list.

In reality, most companies on that list don’t want to offer comprehensive benefits or even one guaranteed sick day for each employee, based on lobbying efforts on their behalf by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

As the largest lobbying organiztion in the United States, the Chamber spent $91.7 million on lobbying in 2008 and $144.5 million in 2009. It — along with the companies it respresents — opposes any efforts to expand Family and Medical Leave Act leave or to mandate paid sick leave. It opposed a bill that would give employees seven paid sick days a year. It opposed SCHIP (State Children’s Health Insurance Program) and the Employee Free Choice Act. It aggressively opposes union-backed proposals to increase minimum wage.

Some of these “listed” companies are multinational corporations with offices not only in the United States but also in Norway and Sweden. Benefits for white-collar American workers at these companies might be better than most: six weeks of paid maternity leave (and maybe up to a week of paternity leave for fathers), lactation rooms and maybe they can even buy vacation time. (Yes, that was touted as a “benefit.”)

Their employees in Norway and Sweden, however, get paid family leave of one to three years, the option of part-time work, shorter workweeks, paid sick leave and paid vacation. Why? Because all of that is legally required in those countries.

In Europe, … paid leaves are financed through social insurance, which leaves European employers more competitive than U.S. employers, for two reasons. First, European businesses do not have to pay the steep 30% ‘benefits load’ — the cost of a benefits package as a percentage of a worker’s salary — that many U.S. businesses pay. Second, because European employers are not responsible for covering the cost of paid leave themselves, they can afford to replace the worker on leave. In contrast, when U.S. employers pay the wages of workers on leave, often they simply heap leave-takers’ responsibilities onto their remaining workers, with no compensating increase in pay. This practice fuels workplace resentment. (p. 35)

In the United States, “The notion that having a child is a private frolic that does not deserve community support is implausible. There is no reason to expect that society should be able to privatize the costs of raising the next generation of citizens — from which all society will benefit — onto the backs of the women who bear them. This habit impoverishes women economically and men emotionally.” (p. 107)

Williams finally, finally, finally asks (and answers) the same question I’ve been asking for years. It’s not, “What’s wrong with women?” as Leslie Bennetts, Linda Hirshman and several others have asked. It’s, “What’s wrong with the workplace?”

Somewhat “coming full circle,” Williams starts with Lisa Belkin’s 2003 article, The Opt-Out Revolution, and I learned about Williams’ new book from Belkin’s more recent article, Calling Mr. Mom? and blog post of the same name.

In the first chapter, Williams expands on work she did in 2006 on a paper called “Opt Out” or Pushed Out? How the Press Covers Work/Family Conflict, The Untold Story of Why Women Leave the Workforce, which debunked the “opt-out revolution” myth perpetuated by media reports.

Even better for me, at that time, was a journalist debunking the myth — which had been perpetuated by journalists — for an audience of journalists when E.J. Graff wrote The Opt-Out Myth essay for the Columbia Journalism Review in 2007.

Graff explained: “Here’s why this matters: if journalism repeatedly frames the wrong problem, then the folks who make public policy may very well deliver the wrong solution. If women are happily choosing to stay home with their babies, that’s a private decision. But it’s a public policy issue if most women (and men) need to work to support their families, and if the economy needs women’s skills to remain competitive. It’s a public policy issue if schools, jobs, and other American institutions are structured in ways that make it frustratingly difficult, and sometimes impossible, for parents to manage both their jobs and family responsibilities.”

And how are American institutions structured? With masculine workplace norms.

… although work-family conflict traditionally is associated with women, a prime mover of work-family conflict is masculinity. Inflexible workplaces have proved so hard to change, in significant part, because of the intertwining of masculinity with work schedules and current understandings of work commitment. (p. 33)

What do masculine workplace norms get us? No paid family leave. Long hours. Unequal pay. And motherhood as the strongest trigger for gender bias.

As a culture, we need to stop lying to ourselves, stop pretending that the ‘choices’ thrust on us by outmoded norms are actually choices made of free will. We need to stop ignoring the fact that the available choices are dismally inadequate. (p. 40)

 
I couldn’t help thinking of the movie 9 to 5 when reading this book. Didn’t Judy, Violet and Doralee take care of flexible work schedules and job sharing 30 years ago? Sure, they had to poison, hogtie and hold captive their sexist boss. But, hey, they got the job done, right?

Well, OK. Real life is much harsher. Many employees are “one sick child away from being fired.” They are often forced to make the impossible decision to choose between work or their children. When they pick their children (because they’re sick and daycare or school won’t take them or, worse, they’re headed to the emergency room), employees are often fired.

This is not just a working-mother issue. It affects fathers, too. Current research shows that this kind of inflexibility is not just an issue for women:

“Roughly 55% of the arbitration that WorkLife Law studied involved men.” (p. 56)

But it’s time to realize that the workplace is a “gender factory” constructed for “ideal workers” without family responsibilities.

Let’s begin with pregnancy. The only reason pregnancy represents a problem for employed women is because the ideal-worker norm is designed around someone with a man’s body (no time off for childbearing) and men’s traditional life patterns (no time off for child rearing or other care work). Once again, the issue is not whether men and women are really different; the issue is why this particular difference matters in this context. As Martha Minow pointed out long ago, men are as different from women as women are from men. What gives women’s difference salience in the workplace is the weight of unstated masculine norms. (p. 129)

“The ideal-worker standard and norm of work devotion push mothers to the margins of economic life. And a society that marginalizes its mothers impoverishes its children. That is why the paradigmatic poor family in the United States is a single mother and her child.” (p. 103) Emphasis added.

Williams does a great job of breaking down the differences between classes and explaining the need to bridge those gaps and rebuild an alliance between progressives and “the Missing Middle.”

“The most refined fuel for class resentments is the culture of casual insults leveled by progressives toward the white working class. Changing U.S. politics will require an embargo on such insults.” (p. 152)

“As Theda Skocpol pointed out nearly a decade ago, progressives tend to focus so intently on poverty that they miss Americans in the middle of the income distribution. Skocpol finds it ‘puzzling’ that ‘our policy debates deal so little with the fate of working families of modest means.’ She recommended ‘a new family-oriented populism’ that offers supoprt for working families on the type that exists in Europe, namely, universal programs, rather than means-tested programs that are limited to the poor. Her analysis has been largely ignored.” (p. 161)

Maybe it’s time to stop ignoring this.

Williams challenges cultural fantasies about feminism (especially Sarah Palin‘s version of it — the five pages she spends deconstructing Palin alone is worth the price of the book), and she says she wants to start a national conversation about gender issues.

A conversation.

Is that enough? Who participates? Then what?

Posted by Becky @ 7:50 pm | 8 Comments  

Rocking pneumonia and the boogie woogie flu

January 25, 2010 | Family,Getting sick,Iowa,Medical,Pharmaceuticals,Stuff,Weather,Winter

I just moved my mini-pharmacy from the kitchen back to the medicine cabinet in the bathroom. I hope I didn’t jinx anything.

Posted by Becky @ 5:09 pm | Comments  

What can heal the U.S. health-care system?

August 14, 2009 | Barack Obama,Benefits,Death,Economics,Ethics,Getting sick,Health,Medical,Nancy Pelosi,Pharma,Pharmaceuticals,Politics,U.S. government

I really don’t know. But David Goldhill has some smart things to say in “How American Health Care Killed My Father” in the September 2009 issue of The Atlantic.

Posted by Becky @ 6:00 am | 1 Comment  

When I said pink Christmas?

December 20, 2008 | Family,Getting sick,Holidays,Iowa,Weather,Winter

This is NOT what I had in mind.

Neither was this.

The good news? It’s not chicken pox. It’s a reaction to antibiotics she was taking for strep. So at least it’s not contagious, and we won’t be quarantined for Christmas. That is, as long as nothing else crops up between now and then. I mean, we still have a few days …

Posted by Becky @ 12:12 pm | Comments  

Sick day

July 14, 2008 | Getting sick,Stuff

This is what happens when a little girl gets sick and she doesn’t take real naps anymore.

Posted by Becky @ 10:07 pm | 4 Comments  

These guys put the ‘care’ in health care

April 3, 2008 | Getting sick,Health

Still no photos, so here’s a lovely video for your viewing and listening pleasure. It’s the song that plays in my head whenever someone tells me they have “walking pneumonia.”

According to The Wall Street Journal today, the longer you stay well, the more it hurts companies’ bottom line. Shame on you.

Kimberly-Clark execs apparently had to use their tissues to wipe their own tears after a fourth-quarter drop in sales last year — all because you failed to get sick.

Companies were worried for a while, though, telling shareholders to do their part.

In January, Walgreen Co. CEO Jeffrey Rein told a shareholder gathering that December marked the first time in his 25-year career at the company that cough- and cold-medicine sales fell during the month. If attendees of the meeting needed to cough, he joked, they should leave the room and “go to a movie theater or on a bus” to spread their germs. “We’re really hoping for a very strong flu season,” Mr. Rein told the crowd, according to a transcript of his presentation.

Sweet, huh?

Procter & Gamble Co.said on a conference call in January that quarterly sales of its Vicks cold medicine had been weak. “Unfortunately, people have not been getting sick at a rate that we would all like yet,” P&G CEO A.G. Lafley said on the call, with a chuckle.

Yeah, that is pretty funny.

Hospitals also rode the roller coaster of this flu season. Sicker patients often bring higher reimbursement from insurers or the government, and the flu can cause pneumonia and other complications. “You have a strong flu season, and the ancillary business is very profitable,” David Dill, chief financial officer of LifePoint Hospitals Inc., explained to investors at a conference in January. If an elderly flu sufferer in intensive care needs a tracheotomy, “that turns into higher acuity business for us,” he said. “Or, on the pediatric side, young kids coming into the hospital, that’s a nice margin for us, as well.”

He’s talking about Grandma’s tracheotomy and Baby Jenny’s hospital stay. I bet Grandma would tell you how proud she is of helping that “nice margin,” but, well, she’s got that trach, you know …

“Of course 36,000 die from the flu every year, and more than 200,000 go to the hospital for it. The flu apparently accounts for $16.3 billion in lost earnings every year.”

Oops. How did that get in there?

Anyway. Here’s where you can find the article, “Flu Economy Takes Unexpected Turn.”

Posted by Becky @ 3:31 pm | 1 Comment  

Call Guinness*! I think we’re about to set a record

February 12, 2008 | Family,Getting sick,Health,Norway,Traveling,Vacation

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See that? That’s how much the Kristiansund Hospital in Norway wants for one overnight stay for my daughter in December. That’s NOK 9750,00 (Norwegian kroner) or about $1,780. That brings our running tab for this vacation to almost $14,000. For three weeks — and one day (thanks, Haris) — in Norway. Next time a Norwegian says they have “free” health care? Don’t believe it. I never have. Paying a 50-percent income tax rate when we lived in Norway was enough to make me believe that nothing is free.

So, dear Norwegian Consulate in Houston, can you help a mother out? (Or anyone? Please?) It apparently doesn’t matter that our daughter has dual citizenship, a Norwegian passport and a Norwegian identification number. I know she doesn’t live in Norway, but this was an emergency.

I suppose it wasn’t great timing for the hospital stay, considering all the news about Gro Harlem Brundtland at the time. Norwegians were all up in arms about her use of the Norwegian health-care system. She’s a former Norwegian prime minister. She’s also a physician and former head of the World Health Organization. (Sorta ironic, no?) She’s retired now and lives in France, and Norwegians weren’t about to let her get “free” health care that included a hip operation. Never mind that she probably paid up to half of her lifetime salary in taxes to pay for Norway’s “free” health care. And never mind that she’s one of those people Norway’s system is supposed to care for in its cradle-to-grave “safety net.”

*I meant this Guinness.

But a few of these wouldn’t hurt. (Although, who has money for beer? Sigh.)

guinnessbeer.jpg

P.S. The bill arrived today. I’m afraid to check my mail anymore.

Posted by Becky @ 7:20 pm | 7 Comments  

Ms. Big Rake goes to Washington

September 4, 2007 | Books,Getting sick,Traveling

I got sick during the first week of school two weeks ago. Everyone got sick. Then I started to feel better. Until Saturday. It was worse. I was sick all weekend. Then today. Much, much worse. Fever. Chills. And various nastiness. I swear, I’m ready for hospice. Is it this bad everywhere? Or is it just me?

Questions about visiting Washington, D.C.

If I miraculously rise from my death bed, however, I plan to visit our nation’s capital next month. Yes, when searching for “death bed,” one of the first results was Abraham Lincoln on his, which I have been reading about in Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation. Coincidence? I think not. She also talks a lot about Washington, D.C., which brings me to my questions.

I will attend a conference, and I’m not sure what to expect with weather, what I will need clothing-wise, what in the world I can pack in a suitcase anymore and such. Yes, I’m flying, which means I will probably miss the entire first day of the conference because of delays or cancellations.

Suitcase

What is a person allowed to pack in a checked suitcase anymore? Last time I flew, I only took a carry-on. I didn’t want to mess with having my nail clippers or shampoo swiped, so I took nothing of the sort. I just went to the nearest supermarket when I arrived at my destination. I doubt that will be possible in October. So … can I pack toothpaste, creams, lotions and various sharp objects in my checked luggage? (I had cuticle clippers swiped once, and it made me wonder if they thought I might stalk and tackle someone on the plane, hold them down and … clip their cuticles.)

Wardrobe

This will be the first time I will pretend to be professional in public in, well, a while. I will already be an outsider as a freelancer (not to mention, hiss, a blogger), and I will probably have that first-day-at-Kindergarten look with my new satchel for my laptop. Yes, satchel. I have bags. I want a satchel. So I don’t want to go overboard with a whole new wardrobe or anything. But I don’t want to seem completely out of it.

Shoes 

My feet have become Floridated. No, they don’t consume fluoride. They just live in sandals day in and day out because they can, and they don’t do well in normal shoes. I only have shoes and socks for visiting other places, and I always get blisters on my feet whenever that happens. But, tell me, sandals in D.C. in October won’t fly. Will they?

Dress code

The dress code is “business casual.” What does that mean these days? Way back when I worked the mushroom shift (you know, after dark and through to the early-morning hours), there was only a two-hour gap when the day-shift folks would sneer at our ratty jeans and tennis shoes. After that, nobody cared what we looked like. So … what is business casual? Does it include clothing that most people would dry clean? Or just slacks that aren’t denim?

Weather

Is it cold there in October? (Anything 75 degrees or below would cause me to break out the winter stuff here.) Do I need a sweater? Jacket? Ear muffs and mittens?

Posted by Becky @ 9:30 pm | 5 Comments  

End of a long week just got longer

August 23, 2007 | Getting sick,School

What’s worse than putting my babies on a bigass school bus at 7:30 every morning, the whole transition thing, crying, no more naps? Having them home tomorrow. Sick. I think I’m getting sick too. Good times.

Posted by Becky @ 8:47 pm | Comments  


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