Stalled gender equality

WHEN YOUNG women plan their futures, they often expect that they can balance the career of their dreams with a satisfying family life. Yet despite the advances made by women in the workplace, the challenges faced by working mothers continue to put women in no-win situations where they must sacrifice their former career paths or lose time with their children.

These concerns were discussed at a panel called "Women, Family and Work: A Candid Discussion," with presentations by authors Barbara Ehrenreich, Andrea Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz. All three women have experienced the stress felt by working mothers. They held the discussion in order to encourage conversation among women with the same concerns. Discussions like these can help women to focus on the source of their frustrations instead of feeling isolated and blaming themselves. Women face impossible choices because corporate America demands unreasonable hours while denying benefits to many poor and part-time workers. By talking about these problems, women can unite to advocate for protections that would greatly improve their lives.

Ehrenreich described the optimism of "second wave" feminists when they decided that they could have both a career and a family. The feminist movement of the 1960s liberated women from the obligation to give up their careers when they became pregnant, and it seemed that women really could "have it all."

Today, women still feel determined to have everything, but balancing work and family has become no easier and many women feel like the pressures are getting worse. Ehrenreich experienced the prejudice against women who try to re-enter the workforce after staying at home when she tried to find a white-collar job for her latest book project. She observed that when applying for jobs, "Having a gap in your resume for homemaking is as bad as having a gap in your resume for prostitution."

For mothers who remain in the workforce after their short maternity leave, the pressure to work longer hours limits their ability to care for their own children, while the cost of daycare drains their income. Many women take part time jobs to increase time with their families, but these jobs frequently lack the salary and benefits that mothers need to support a family. Every option seems to come with a significant sacrifice.

As women struggle to navigate their options, the so-called "Mommy Wars" have become a favorite subject of the punditocracy, pitting working mothers against mothers who choose to stay home, as though women should be fighting each other about the appropriate balance between work and family. It's easy to argue about what is "best" for children and "best" for women, implying that women who make the opposite choice have somehow failed as mothers or as feminists. But instead of judging each other's choices, women should be uniting against the forces that limit their options in the first place.

Legal protections for parents could significantly assist women who want to continue working after they have children. Extending maternity leave and ensuring reinstatement at the same salary would allow women to stay home during a baby's crucial first month, while giving them an incentive to return to the same job.

Guaranteeing affordable daycare would greatly help women who want to stay in the workforce. For decades, conservatives have complained about "welfare mothers" who don't have jobs, yet the cost of daycare limits the options of women who want to work. If we made it easier to balance work and childcare, many poor women would jump at the chance to make extra money for their families.

Many of the problems faced by working mothers are the same problems faced by other workers who feel strained by their professional lives. While it's important to address the problems faced by working mothers, the larger issue at stake is the increasing encroachment of corporate America on the private lives of their employees. Long work days and low pay adversely affect the health and happiness of all workers, including mothers, fathers and employees who don't have children. If working mothers don't get enough time for their families, childless workers get even less time withpartners, parents, siblings, and their friends.

Ultimately, the plight of working mothers is about the cost of living in the United States -- the amount of time and energy it takes to maintain a successful career. We all have an interest in making life easier for working Americans, whether they have children or not. We shouldn't have to choose between our personal and professional lives.

Cari Lynn Hennessy's column appears Tuesdays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at chennessey@cavalierdaily.com.

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