Sunday, March 18, 2007

Staying critical of the Feminist conversation about work and family

I was recently invited to speak for a symposium for a group called RESPECT, which is part of the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore. The topic of the event was "Economics of the Gender Divide." My talk was called "Staying critical of the Feminist conversation about work and family," and here it is (know that this was written to be spoken, hence all the use of the first person):

Before I start, I would like to make two disclaimers. First, I want to be straightforward about the fact that my thoughts about the issues that encircle gender and race in the workforce, are based on my experiences as an undergraduate woman at Yale University, which is arguably one of the most elite of elite academic institutions and definitely a place of enormous privilege and I want to recognize what is important about the perspective that being educated at such an institution affords me, and also address what is problematic about that perspective.

Second, I want to mention that what goes on at institutions like Yale, or Harvard or Princeton, is given an unfair weight in terms of the national media discussion about various political issues. I think that the media maelstrom that followed Larry Summer’s comments at Harvard about women in science, and the attention that every move that Shirley Tilghman, the first female president at Princeton, makes are two good examples of this. And I think that this fact is why it is all the more important to be critical of the form the discussion takes at these institutions. The project of my talk today, and of my columns in the Yale Daily News is to make sure that we are aware of the many biases that skew the discussion in certain directions.

I would like to start this story at the very beginning, which in this case I locate in the Fall of my freshmen year, which was the Fall of 2003. In October 2003, the New York Times magazine ran an article by a columnist named Laurie Pickens, who at the time and to this day write a column for the Times about work and family called “Life’s Work,” the name of the article was “The Opt-Out Revolution” and it was an in depth look at what Pickens was positing as a cultural trend of highly educated women, many of them with multiple degrees from Ivy-league institutions, choosing to stay at home and care for their children rather then pursue successful careers.

This article had an enormous impact on the discussion among female students and female faculty at Yale, because in many ways it countered everything that we held dear about our status as female students at this institution that is the very bastion of white, male patriarchy. And what it threatened was our belief that the shift that had occurred in our culture on the level of secondary education, which is that the second wave of feminism had opened those doors to women, we believed that it had also occurred in the workforce, meaning that once we graduated we would be able to rise to highest levels of power and prestige, unencumbered by the glass ceiling that had prevented generations of women before us from succeeding. But what the women represented in the article were saying was that not only did women continue to face gender specific challenges in the workforce, but many of the women were actively choosing to stop working rather then continue to work and change the work environment to something suited women’s needs.

Two years later, this time in the Fall of my junior year, a second article was published, this one written by a Yale school of Management student named Louise Story. In this article, published in September of 2005, and titled “Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood” Story interviewed current students at Yale and Harvard, and found that a surprising number of the female undergraduates were planning on leaving their careers once they had children to be stay at home mothers. As you can imagine this article was not well received by most of the female undergraduates at Yale who felt that it grossly misrepresented their future plans, and ran counter to the conversation that the Opt Out Revolution article had spurred.

A number of panels ensued, where professors, administrators and students including Louise Story convened to look at whether this really was a trend among Yale students, or whether the women Story interviewed were exceptions. That year the Yale Women’s Center undertook a study to comprehensively assess the prevailing ideas among Yale college women and men regarding negotiating between work and family. The results of this study were much more affirming in that they found that the psychology of students was much more advanced then what seemed to be an antiquated model being propagated by the women interviewed in the Times.

What that study found was that the vast majority of undergraduate women had every intention of staying in the workforce after having children, in fact only 4% responded that they would stop working, and that the undergraduate men actually had surprisingly high expectations of being able to modify their careers to accommodate taking care of their children.

These results, though positive, didn’t entirely negate the effect of The Opt Out Revolution article, because what many of the women in that article professed was that they had never expected to choose to leave their jobs, and yet they were finding themselves doing just that. A panel of female alumnae organized by the Women’s Center reinforced that idea. Each one of the women who spoke on that panel, titled ‘Life After Yale: Negotiating Work and Family,’ talked extensively about how as undergraduate women they had expected to blaze the trail to success hot on their fellow male student’s heels and be women who would succeed in a man’s world. What each one of them found, however, once they entered the work force was that they had obstacles to overcome and problems to deal with that they were faced with only because they were women. And many of these issues, problems, concerns and hurdles had to do with negotiating their careers with taking care of their children. And what they told us, female undergraduates, was that they wanted to come back and talk to us about how they had handled those questions so that we would go into the workforce truly prepared for what was to come.

So this is all to say that this phenomenon of highly educated, privileged women choosing to stay at home and take care of their children in lieu of pursuing their careers full time, has been a major cause of worry and concern among my friends and fellow female students during my time at Yale. And of course, what is particularly frustrating is seeing that these issues don’t even seem to register with the male students.

Ok, so given that this is the tone of the conversation at Yale, what can be learned, or what is significant about this?

Well, first its disappointing to see that the feminist movement really hasn’t come far enough in terms of addressing the many complex factors that pull women out of the workforce. Though in her article Belkin suggested that this all may be due to the fact that women really don’t want to work, and given the opportunity to leave take it, this doesn’t hold true if you start to look at the trends of working women in other countries. For example, if you look at Sweden, a country that has done much more then the United States in terms of institutionalizing maternal and paternal leave, as well as institutionalizing childcare, you find that highly educated women are much more likely to stay in their jobs after having children, and that there are almost as many men take time off when they have children.

In effect, the tragedy of this trend is that the women who have the most access to privilege and prestige and power, who are poised to make the largest scale, substantive changes in terms of institutionalizing childcare, maternal and paternal leave, creating flexible work schedules in the United States, and really affecting the entire structure of the work environment to accommodate people of different needs are those opting out.

What we gain from knowing about this conversation at Yale, is the understanding that a lot of work continues to need to be done, and hopefully my generation of college graduates can enter the workforce ready to tackle these problems and bring about the substantive change that the generation before us was unable to accomplish.

But the other thing that I want to highlight about the way this conversation has developed in the national media and at Yale, is that it has focused entirely on the experiences of the very top echelon of working women—those with the most prestigious degrees and the economic status to have the choice to stay at home. At the end of the day, though an unattractive choice, the ability to stay at home is a privilege allotted to very few. Choosing to leave your career is an option available only to a class of women with incredible economic privilege, those who can rely on their spouses (in fact, you must have a spouse in order to this) to make enough money to support the family on one salary.

If my education as an African American Studies major has taught me anything, it is that this idea of the oppressed woman who was forced to stay at home with her children in the 1950’s, or the oppressed woman who chooses to stay at home with her children in 2007, has no cultural resonance with the experiences of most minority women. Black women, for example, and I would argue most women minorities, have always worked because their economic status for most of American history did not afford them the privilege of staying home.

Thus, once again you have a situation where a major, powerful feminist conversation is failing to take into consideration the lives and experiences and circumstances of the majority of women in this country: those women who either because of race, economic or marital status could never even entertain the idea of leaving their jobs. They have to work because they have to eat, they have to pay for their housing and clothe their children. The women that most of the initiatives of the Annie E. Casey Foundation are looking to help.

So what do we do?

Well, to look back at the Opt Out Revolution article, the most important point that Belkin makes comes so late in the article that it seems like an afterthought. She writes that women’s willingness to leave the workforces is not a reason why women shouldn’t be working, rather:

“This, I would argue, is why the workplace needs women. Not just because they are 50 percent of the talent pool, but for the very fact that they are more willing to leave than men. That, in turn, makes employers work harder to keep them.”

She continues by highlighting all of the changes that have occurred in terms of job flexibility, parental leave policies, etc. because of employers attempts to retain female workers. And critically, these changes are dramatically changing the way that men work in our culture. The salient point here is that the presence of the other (be it women or minorities) in the workforce is absolutely crucial because they are the only ones who have the perspective to know what their needs are and ask that those needs be accounted for so that they can continue to contribute their invaluable talent. And that in the end, benefits everyone in the workforce.

Ironically, I am about to borrow a Reagonomics terms and apply it to something that could actually help women, but please bear with me.

If we can think about the women agitating for women’s interests at the top of economic and power structures as creating a “trickle down effect,” in that they can help enact the major sweeping changes to the structure of the workforce, then I want to posit that in addition to this trickle down model, what we need is a trickle up model.

Now what does that mean?

Once again I want to look at examples that exists outside of the United States, and what I want to look at is the example of the Grameen Bank and the success of micro-credit in Bangladesh as a way to combat poverty. I am sure that many of you are familiar with Muhammad Yunus and his work in light of him winning the Nobel Peace Prize this Fall, but I just want to briefly discuss his project and look at why it is relevant to our discussion.

The story, as Yunus tells it, is that in the 1974 he was an economist working in Bangladesh trying to figure out an innovative solution to the incredibly profound poverty that plagued the country after a major famine. After talking to people he realized that one of the major problems facing the poor was the callousness of the loan sharks, who would lend to people and then charge ridiculously high interest so that the recipients of the loan were immediately trapped in a vicious cycle of debt. When talking to a group of 42 people about their debts, Yunus thought to ask how much they owed to these loan sharks, and to his surprise he found that the entire group only owed $27 American dollars. So he decided just to lend them the money form his own pocket and set them free from their debt.

He then went to a bank and asked if the bank couldn’t start lending money to the people instead of the loan sharks. The bank responded that they could not, because the poor people were unworthy of the money and could not be trusted with it. Yunus, bristling at this suggestion, decided to take out a loan under his own name which he then divided into smaller loans which he lent out. Every penny was quickly paid back and this experience led him to create the Grameen Bank which offered small loans to the poor to do with them exactly what they saw fit, such that the bank was enabling the people to create their own solutions for their poverty and meet the needs of their community as they understood them, rather then imposing solutions form the outside.

The other important decision Yunus made very early on in the creation of his micro-credit bank, was that he privilege women over men in the loan program. He saw that women were much likelier to make choices that worked to benefit the entire community with their money then men were, and much less likely to spend the money on alcohol, gambling or prostitution. In other words, giving women the agency to improve their situation had enormous dividends for the community at large.

What this example makes clear is how ensuring that women, minorities, or those under-represented, are a part of the conversation is the only way to accomplish major structural change that reforms the system, and that there is no adequate way to impose those changes from the top down. In other words, we need the women at the top to push for improvement (trickle down) but its just as important that the women at the bottom of the economic and power hierarchy are empowered to make the changes they see fit because they are the only ones who understand exactly what needs to be done for the improvement of their lives(trickle up).

Thus, I would like to recognize that the perspective that I have as a Yale student, even given that I have been very involved in a heated four-year feminist dialogue about work and families, is inevitably limited by the limits of Yale experience. And that is true of everyone. I can’t account for the challenges that women in another set of circumstances face, so it is vital that I (and all of my female and male cohorts) remember that though we can ascertain that certain things in the work force need to shift to accommodate our needs, those changes are only a portion of a greater movement that needs to take place so that everyone is given the ability to flourish in their respective career, and able to make the choices that are best for their lives. And that allowing other people to partake in this conversation, and at times ceding decision-making power to them is the only way to productively move forward.

There is nothing in my opinion that represents a greater respect for another human being or group than respecting their autonomy to make the right decision.

As my father loves to say, a culture that oppresses 50% of its workforce (or more!) doesn’t advance very quickly.

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