Women’s Equality Day, celebrated this week, commemorates the passage of a woman’s right to vote. Starting with our right to weigh in at the polls, the feminist movement has certainly come far. However, for mothers especially, the movement has not come far enough.
American women are increasingly divided along a schizophrenic split. Unemployed, on the one hand. Over-worked and over-stressed, on the other. This can hardly be what our hard-fighting suffragists and feminist forebearers dreamed of when they fought to open up opportunities for women.
On a personal level, it became clear rather quickly after my son was born that women are still at a disadvantage compared to most men. Upon return from maternity leave, I found myself struggling with a tug-of-war between work and childcare demands. Our family was faced with a sobering inability to find quality daycare atop workplace policies banning flexible schedules. For the first time in my life, I felt bereft of reasonable options and utterly powerless. Unfortunately, I’m hardly alone.
Data released from the Pew Research Center earlier this year indicates that a growing number of women leave the workforce to care for children, and never make it back.
These opt-out mothers fall into two categories. The first is women who do not earn enough to pay for childcare. The second is high-wage-earning women from elite universities who, according to researchers at Vanderbilt University, appear more likely to quit their jobs than graduates from less prestigious universities. In other words, the American workforce is forcing out low-income mothers as well as losing a chunk of its best and brightest to child-rearing. If women were not forced to chose between their child’s welfare and their jobs, more mothers would be in the workforce, and income earnings between men and women would likely be a lot more equitable.
Among mothers who do maintain careers, research indicates that moms shoulder the majority of childcare and household responsibilities on top of work concerns. Given these realities, it is not surprising that women with families are now more likely than men to report extreme stress as well as less time for managing stress. This formula hardly seems equitable, or sustainable.
If women hope to achieve true equality, the time has come to unapologetically call for what mothers and children need most to ensure their child’s welfare, and to remain in the workforce: extended paid maternity leave, more part-time work options (especially for mothers with children under school-age), flexible schedules, and greater access to affordable, high-quality childcare.
Fortunately, there is some indication that the career versus family struggle mothers face may be a growing focal point in the political arena. President Obama’s Working Families Summit, held in June, promised to launch the latest wave of progressive reforms, targeted at helping advance working mothers.
The summit, which I attended, was a needed call to action from A-list policymakers and cultural influencers alike. From President Obama to Nancy Pelosi to Michelle Obama, speeches were broadly focused on encouraging women to remain in the workforce and strive to advance. To help Washington, they promised to encourage a modest expansion of flexible schedules and telecommuting options so that mothers can care for sick children, and parents can attend their child’s special events (e.g., teacher-parent meetings, or a child’s championship sports game).
While President Obama’s summit and the “lean-in” model it seemed to advocate was a great first step, I left the conference feeling that, so far, this working mother’s movement has not gone far enough.
For those who are unfamiliar with Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, the premise is broadly a trickle-down theory of feminism: If more women attain high positions, there will be more females in power who, as mothers who struggled themselves, will work to create more family-friendly work policies.
Several polls over the past several years have found that what working mothers really want is not to “lean in,” but to have the option of part-time employment until children are school-aged. Pew research gathered in 2009 indicated that a strong majority of mothers (62%) would prefer to work part-time. In 2011, Working Mother magazine conducted a large-scale poll of mothers and similarly found that most mothers, especially those with children under school age, would prefer part-time employment. Yet no one in Washington has, so far, advocated expanding job-sharing or part-time employment options.
In fact, compared to Europe, the US ranks among the lowest in maternal part-time employment. Compared to Canada and the European superpowers, we also rank among the lowest in female employment rates, maternity leave, and day-care subsidies.
As a psychologist with training in child development, I can attest that the first three to five years of a child’s life are the most formative and critical. it is in our best interest as a country to make sure that all infants and toddlers receive high-quality care. Even if women want to lean in, it is difficult for them to do so without an infrastructure that ensures their children are adequately cared for. To continue with our current two-parent working model absent of this infrastructure poses risks to future generations.
While the advancement of female-driven leadership should be a goal that all women continue to share, the reality is that many mothers are already forced to “lean in” to full capacity and rather than getting ahead, are feeling burnt-out and less-than-adequate at work and at home. If we truly want to re-ignite the woman’s movement and advance women in the workplace, we need to start by providing a base that supports families and children. This base includes paid maternity leave, meaningful part-time employment options, flexible work schedules, and affordable high-quality daycare.
While Women’s Equality Day is not a voting day, it is a reminder not only of the progress of women but also of our power to influence society through our hard-won ability to vote. If, indeed, women hope to continue the movement, the time has come to unabashedly rally, and gear up to vote on, the issues that impact mothers and children the most. During primary elections next month, let’s make sure we vote for incumbents who have the courage to advocate for bold yet common-sense reforms that protect the well-being of mothers and children.
Dr. Monique Moore is a clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C. She formerly served as a Psychological Health Expert for the Department of Defense and currently divides her time between private practice and caring for her one-year-old son.