10.18.139:00 PM ET

Leaning In For A Better School Schedule

What's the biggest obstacle to true gender equality in the workplace? Childcare costs for the first four years of a kid's life and summers off from the classroom. Why reforming the school schedule should be feminists' next priority.

Okay world, having spent the last six months vaunting or disputing the need for women to Lean In at work in order to move up and raise the number of women corporate officers and board members, it’s time to move on to Step Next: build a good, affordable national childcare system and a rational school calendar. That would allow women to succeed in business at all levels in unprecedented numbers. We can do it, if we use our growing clout and lean on business and government to step up.

Whether or not you agree with Sheryl Sandberg that internal obstacles hold women back at work and that they can blow past those obstacles if they just try harder, it’s pretty clear that plenty of external obstacles remain to be addressed. Business as we know it was structured around “ideal workers” able to commit full time to their work, with family management handled by a wife. For ages, gender has functioned as a work stratification system.The paid work infrastructure has not changed much over the past 50 years in America. While some men do share child-care tasks at home, relatively few of them step out of the work-stream in order to mind young children, whereas quite a few women do. This has disproportionately large effect on women’s long-term salaries, and thus on their family’s lifetime income. It also negatively affects women’s movement up career ladders into policy-making roles—hence the mere trickle we’ve seen.

To change the dynamic, women need a reliable someone to care for and educate the kids. To date we’ve left it to families to find and pay for care for themselves—the “it’s your family, it’s your problem” model. But the inadequacy of that model has become increasingly clear, as we realize that an educated next generation is essential for the nation as a whole, and that the national investment in the skills of women workers goes down the drain when women are forced out of the jobs they trained for.

Economists trying to account for the ongoing pay discrimination against women attribute part to lost wages and lost experience incurred when women step out, and another part to employers’ anticipation that women are more likely than men to step out of work at some point. This turns out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. They invest less in their women employees. Then, when a couple does have kids, given that the woman already earns less, she is more likely to be the one to stay home with the kids.

So why do so many women find they need to leave work? Some just want to spend an extended period with their babies. But for many, it’s the school schedule.

Just think about it: No public school before age five. Once kids reach Kindergarten, school’s over by 3:30pm. And school covers only nine months out of the year! For three months in summer, care is back on you.

Therein lies the train wreck of many a woman’s career. Partnered or single, she has to either pay someone else to care for kids during the many work hours when they are not in school, or, in the absence of a ‘wife’ of her own, do it herself. The cost of care in the first four years of a child’s life often nears or exceeds a working woman’s take home pay, especially if she has more than one child and is early in her career (depending on location, costs for good care range from $10K to $25K per year per child). Add in the tax bias against working moms, If she has a partner making a wage the family could survive on, she’s often pushed to stay home. Even if she doesn’t want to stop working and makes enough to cover the cost, the logistics involved in finding and maintaining good care may involve too much of a struggle. In spite of the fact that the long-term effect of stepping out on her earning ability will negatively impact the family income for decades, that it will alter the power dynamic within the couple and diminish her long term wages should she divorce, the short-term ease of having one person specialize in caregiving, along with the wide prevalence of the pattern, wins the day in many couples.

Once kids are in school, the cost of afterschool care and summer camps as well as the time involved in arranging it all becomes an issue, as does the dependence of schools on volunteer hours. If schools were fully funded, there wouldn’t be the same pressure on the PTO to fill in the gaps.

As a nation, we should be aiming to cover that missing time in two ways. First, we should offer every child the option to start public school at three months old and require that all parents, male and female, each have 1.5 months off with pay if they are married, or three months off for single parents. (If both men and women took baby leave, employers would no longer be able to anticipate that women would be less reliable workers, and the pay gap would shrink).

If people wanted to stay home with kids, they could. But they wouldn’t have to, as so many must given the current set-up. Along with the moms and families, kids currently in bad care would benefit immeasurably (this is a huge proportion of kids in care), as would those kids’ employers down the line, and society overall.

We also should keep schools open until 5:30 pm, 12 months out of the year. Two of the months could operate in relaxation mode, with no penalties for family vacations. Kids wouldn’t lose skills over the summer for lack of practice. If you don’t want kids in the classroom that long, use the after 3:30 time for homework, play-time or tutoring.

How would we pay for all of this? The additional taxes (payroll, sales and property taxes) brought in from the increased wages earned by the women who return to or never leave work once this schedule starts, could cover much if not all of the additional costs. Any remainder could be made up through sliding scale payments and expanded education investments by the state, the municipality and the feds. What will no doubt soon become our chastened and responsible Congress can hammer out the details.

Of course startup funds would be required to build a nation’s worth of good childcare facilities, to upgrade extant school buildings for summer operations and to train a few hundred thousand skilled childcare and preschool teachers. But these jobs would create their own economic stimulus, putting money into the pockets of construction workers and teachers, who would spend it in their communities. The long-term positive economic effects of improved education for the nation’s children and of their mothers’ new freedom to build solid careers would be enormous.

People have been suggesting similar solutions (especially a national childcare system) for years, with no result. All of these suggestions have been roundly ignored, even scoffed at—not because they wouldn’t work (they do in France) or be positive for all concerned. They haven’t advanced because women haven’t had the clout to make folks pay attention, and their male allies haven’t pushed it.

But that’s changing. Though the numbers are still low, women’s representation in Congress is at an all time high at 17 percent, and national organizations like are pushing childcare and pay equity agendas. National leaders with pro-equity agendas like Kristen Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren are talking back to entrenched old-boy systems. Though women are scarce in the boardrooms, educated women managers and workers abound. We vote, we earn wages, and increasingly we are coming to know our power to insist on change. Together, these add up to a new ability to shape policy, once we won’t take ‘no’ for an answer any more.

Some cities and states have already moved forward with their own preschool programs—including Oklahoma, Washington DC (here’s a good piece on the positive ripple effects), Miami-Dade, Boston and San Antonio. More will join the trend if women and their allies demand it.

In various ways, women have been leaning into the business world for quite a while and building new power and authority of our own. Some have highly visible positions, like Sandberg, Ursula Burns, Hillary Clinton and an expanding set of new leaders. Others with lower profiles nonetheless have power in their multitudes. But of course power only matters if we use it. Time to open the floodgates, to activate our expanding clout, to cash it in. Time to lean on our representatives and our business leaders, male and female, requiring them to step up the support for the rational education infrastructure that will allow women workers to fully participate in the work world and at the same time provide our youngest citizens with the early educations they deserve.

Once we win this battle, we can all move on as a strengthened society to solve more of the world’s many and emerging problems. This kind of tough but worthy fight will build even stronger muscles for the struggles to come.

Elizabeth Gregory teaches at the University of Houston. She is the author of Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood (Basic Books, 2012), and blogs at Follow her on Twitter @egregory.