Jody Heymann paints a disturbing picture of what is happening to our nation’s children, particularly those of the less affluent, and the consequences of this for the future of our society. In a well-documented article, she alerts us to the need for national policies that seem almost obvious, and are clearly economically feasible since countries with much weaker economies than ours have found it possible to support them. But given the present economic situation and the underlying philosophy of the current administration, the chance that any of these sensible and achievable ideas will be implemented is remote at best.
Heymann’s portrait of the disconnect between current national and employment policies on the one hand, and the caregiving needs of contemporary families on the other, constitutes a damning statement about our national priorities. And by complementing other efforts that discuss this lack of connection (e.g., Mona Harrington’s Care and Equality, Joan Williams’s Unbending Gender, and the Report of the Sloan Work-Family Policy Network), it contributes to a growing body of knowledge about the current crisis of care in the United States, particularly with regard to the care of children, but also care of the elderly, of working adults themselves, and of the community at large.1
Though there are many points of similarity among these analyses, and even an emerging consensus on many of the necessary reforms, Heymann’s otherwise convincing and important statement omits discussion of two crucial points that are necessary for a full understanding of the situation. One concerns the role of gender and the other concerns the design of work itself.
Both Harrington and Williams consider gender critical because the social practices and ideologies that are the prime contributors to the problem they and Heymann so vividly portray are constructed around it. Harrington calls for a new understanding of family, one that does not separate a public masculine world of paid employment from a private feminine domain of care. New government or employer policies based on a traditional view of family, she fears, will only further reinforce existing inequities between men and women. Williams’s analysis shows that the traditional masculine definition of an ideal worker—as someone whose sole responsibility and engagement is with paid work—is discriminatory under current law toward anyone (usually women) with caretaking responsibilities. As such, she suggests a legal strategy to deal with these issues. Bringing the lens of gender to the discussion, therefore, can warn us of important social consequences and alert us to new policy alternatives.2
Missing also is a detailed look at the organization of work and the role that work practices as currently defined play in the crisis of care. Heymann rightly points to the need for workplace flexibility. But, though flexibility can clearly be useful, if it is superimposed on current ways of structuring work, it cannot achieve the dual imperatives of care taking and gender equity. What is needed is a deeper cultural change that would legitimate the needs of family care both in the design of work and in the assumptions about competence and success that surround it. Also needed is a new definition of an ideal worker who, by integrating paid work with family care, better meets both productivity and caring needs.
For example, Heymann suggests extending the availability of social services beyond the nine-to-five workday. But what happens to the families of the employees who have to staff these extended hours? For them, the work-family dilemma gets exacerbated. The alternative of changing workplace practices that demand a worker’s continuous eight-hour presence and giving all employees a few “working” hours a week to attend to such needs is not considered because we assume that then productivity would suffer. But there is plenty of evidence, both from experimental and action research, that the extra motivation generated by such legitimation would lead to at least as much productive work as before, if not more. It is only the assumption that work as currently organized cannot be changed without harm that stands in the way. My colleagues and I have been collaborating with organizations for some time to test the hypothesis that it is possible to make changes in work design that help employees with their personal needs while at the same time enhancing the business goals of the organization. The results, chronicled in our new book, indicate that despite the difficulty of challenging workplace assumptions, structural change that benefits all is possible. 3
Finally, change also needs to take place in the family. And here the efforts of the Third Path Institute in Philadelphia are important. Under Jessica DeGroot’s leadership, the Institute is working with couples and with family and career counselors to build cultural and structural conditions that honor collaborative, equitable patterns of caring and earning.
I am in complete agreement with Heymann’s conclusion that “by making it possible for all Americans—irrespective of their income, gender, or caretaking responsibilitiesto contribute in the workplace to their full potential, and by improving the educational opportunities and support available to children who will join the labor force in a generation, addressing the needs of working families will strengthen our ability to compete.” But to convince a society ideologically committed to the separation of the public sphere of economic work from the private domestic arena of care, with the latter a matter only of individual choice, we will need a better understanding of the way our social patterns are gendered as well as the way these affect the assumptions on which our workplace and family practices are based. This more nuanced understanding of underlying processes, combined with Heymann’s broader economic and social analysis, would, one hopes, increase the probability of effecting the change our society so desperately needs.
1 Mona Harrington, Care and Equality: Inventing a New Family Politics (New York: Knopf, 1999); Joan Williams, Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); Integrating Work and Family Life: A Holistic Approach (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Sloan School of Management, 2001).
2 Heymann’s useful discussion, in her book, of gender inequalities is a beginning to such a theory-based analysis of gender.
3 See Rhona Rapoport, Lotte Bailyn, Joyce K. Fletcher, and Bettye H. Pruitt, Beyond Work-Family Balance: Advancing Gender Equity and Workplace Performance (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002).