- The Washington Times - Monday, September 4, 2000

Joan Williams does not want to be forced to compromise her career for her family. She doesn't want anyone else to be put in that position either.

Ms. Williams, a law professor at American University, studies the work/family balance, primarily among women, in the United States. She wrote a book on the topic, "Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It," published this year.

The professor, who has an 11-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter, has seen firsthand the problems that come with juggling child care and work.

She is attempting to help Washington lawyers cope with the problem as director of the Project on Attorney Retention. The project's aim is to develop a model for alternative work scheduling policies to help families.

Question: So let's talk about the book a little bit. What do you talk about in the book, what are some of the conclusions that you reach?

Answer: In the book, I focus attention on how we define our ideals of work. And I point out that we generally define the ideal worker as someone who starts to work at age 20, 25, and works for 40 years straight, taking no time off for childbearing or child rearing.

I take that in several different directions. First of all, I ask, well, who needs no time off for childbearing and child rearing? American women still do 70 to 80 percent of child care.

So if you define the ideal worker in that way, you very systematically advantage men as a group and disadvantage women as a group. Women are often left asking, what did I do wrong? But in many ways, the only thing they did wrong was not have the body of a man and the traditional life patterns of a man.

So one of the main topics of the book is the argument that the way we define workplaces puts mothers at a disadvantage. And I document that in the economy, mothers are not in the same position as other adults. Women without children earn about 90 percent of men's wages but mothers earn about 60 percent of father's wages. The economist Jane Waldfogel has found that there's what she calls a family gap between mothers and other adults.

Q: Is that just a matter of time off or are there other factors?

A: Economists generally find that the time off accounts for a certain percentage of what's going on, and then there are other elements as well. And there's a lot of disagreement about which of those other elements constitute choice and which constitute discrimination. There's a lot of controversy.

But what the numbers show is that though the wage gap between men and [childless] women has generally declined, the … gap between mothers and other adults has been widening. It rose in the '80s and it's still rising.

The other important impact is on children. Because in this system, going back to that definition of the ideal worker as someone who takes no time off for childbearing and child rearing, what you really have is a system that pushes mothers to the margins of economic life.

The result of that system in the United States has been high levels of childhood poverty. It's particularly dramatic after divorce.

In the average American family, the father earns 70 percent of the income, and the result after a divorce is very high levels of maternal and child poverty, which is certainly an unintended consequence of the way we design both our workplaces and our notions of who owns what in the family.

Q: What about the image of the strong soccer mom? Certainly that's a woman with different kinds of clout, in elections, etc. Where does that image fit into this whole thing?

A: I think the image of the strong soccer mom reflects first of all that women who are "just housewives" or are working part time on the "mommy track" often have a very healthy sense of themselves as doing very important work.

And they are doing important work, they're doing one of the two important kinds of work most adults do. Most adults do both paid work and family work. The point I'm making is that paid work is tied to entitlements and poverty and family work is often described as "not working," which is odd, but we all do it on occasion.

Q: So how do you go about trying to fix the views of the unpaid and the paid work and how women are disadvantaged?

A: I think you do two things. The first is to change the way we define our ideals of work. And I think this is an important change and one that would help men as well as women. Because one of the things we see now is that as some men become increasingly involved in child rearing, they feel caught in the same ways that primary caregiver mothers have felt caught.

So it would help many men and most mothers if we redefine the ideal worker in a way that was consistent with our values at home because many of us believe very uncontroversial in fact that children need and deserve time with their parents. What a radical value!

Most big companies already have sort of family-friendly policies, but very few workers use them one study shows 3 to 5 percent. The reason they don't I quote in my book a secretary who said, "If you go part time, it's like you're holding up a sign: Don't consider me for promotion."

That kind of family-friendly policy simply isn't good enough. It's not good enough to achieve the business goals because from the business standpoint, a key cost of the way they're doing business now is very high rates of attrition among women, also among men.

Men usually won't tell you that they're leaving for work/ family reasons, but many of them are. These family-friendly policies won't keep them if the women don't feel they're getting proportional pay, proportional benefits and proportional advancement, which is what I propose as the floor for a true rethinking of how to define the ideal worker. If you have that, and in companies where that does exist, you see very sharp rises in retention rates.

Q: When you talk about proportional pay, what exactly is that?

A: You have to figure out what the average work week is. Is it really 40 hours a week or is it really 60? Let's say it's really 50 hours a week. Someone goes 25 hours a week, that's half time, so they get half pay. It's not a subtle calculation.

Proportional benefits is a little bit more subtle, although places, Starbucks for example, give proportional benefits for part-time work. You basically give a benefits package that's worth whatever proportion, say half as much as the full-time workers get.

And proportional advancement is easiest to think about in careers where you already have a preset track of so many years, [such as] law firm partnerships with nine years. If you work part-time for a certain number of years, you add on a certain number of years. Obviously that doesn't address every job in the entire economy, we can't do that. But that gives you the idea.

Q: I assume now that most part-time workers who work half time aren't making half what the full-time people make?

A: No way, no how. The average part-time worker in the United States earns 58 cents per hour worked of what a full-time worker makes. If you talk to women who are on part-time tracks in professional jobs I actually quote one of them in my book.

I met her in the sandbox when my kids were toddlers. She was an architect, and she said that she did great before she had her kids, and then she had her kids and went back and was working part-time. All of a sudden she wasn't getting the good design work that she used to get, and sort of promotion track work. She was under so much pressure to work more that she ended up working close to full-time, being paid half time. Very common scenario.

And so what did she do? What would you do? She quit. She's not getting good work, she's not getting paid for the amount of time she's putting in, and she's still not getting anywhere.

Q: Well, you either quit or go back full time and plunk your kids in day care.

A: What would you do? Most parents consider these ethical choices. Especially mothers. Now, God bless 'em, people are different, and things work differently in different families, but most mothers won't do that. So they quit.

Now is that a choice? Is that a choice or a workplace stat in favor of other people taking care of your children?

Q: Which doesn't bode well for the children.

A: Well, what you have is a society where an adult's commitment to care giving is at their peril. It makes her and her children economically vulnerable. Is this good for children? This is not a system that's good for children.

Q: Or even on the male side, as you mentioned, they also have to make that choice.

A: There's one study that I quote in my book that says 50 percent of the men studied said they would rather have less pay and more time with their family. They don't have a choice either. They're earning 70 percent of the family income. They can't afford the kind of being pushed to the margins that we're talking about.

So what do they do? You still hear men say, "I feel like I've missed my children's childhood." This is not a great deal for men. It's not a great deal for anybody.

Q: Have you done any work on women without children and where they stand in the workplace?

A: Economically, they're better off than the women with kids. But in many ways, this is a system that takes a chunk out of everybody men and women.

Women without children, I think, pay a different price. First of all, they face a society that judges a mature woman in significant part on whether or not she's a good mother. If she doesn't have kids, she's not a good mother. So they face a different sort of eyebrow-raising situation that is often very painful.

The other thing that happens is that some employers have implemented these family-friendly policies in a way that has the result of dividing women against themselves. Because when somebody has to go home to take the kids to Boy Scouts or ballet, if there's a crisis on and the employer hasn't thought it through, someone else has to stay… . This is understandably going to produce a lot of resentment.

Q: It's interesting that we're still talking about this issue in 2000, because it's been going on now for …

A: When I was in college in the early '70s, I did not believe that we would be talking about these issues today. The name of my book is "Unbending Gender," how little has changed.

Q: Women now, do they feel better about their choice to be mothers? Is there any less pressure?

A: All I can tell you, I gave a speech at the Aspen Institute last week. A woman comes up to me in tears and says, "You just named the problem, you've just described my life." This is a very open wound and it's an open wound for women of all ages. It's not a problem that was ever solved.

One out of every four mothers are still homemakers in the key years of career and child development, between age 25 and 44. Another 40 percent either work less than 40 hours a week or part of the year.

What that means when you put those figures together is that two out of three mothers do not work a 40-hour week during the key years of career development. Why? They're also the key years of child development.

Q: We're also told in 2000 that the American worker is better off than he or she has ever been in terms of what they can demand because the job market is tight.

A: This is a truly important point. I think we're at a very important moment. Because we have, what is it, 4 percent unemployment? Employers are working hard to attract and retain qualified workers and again, go back to the example of the law firms.

One of the things, as you probably know, that happened in law firms last spring is that salaries got run up so fast for first-year associates that some first-year associates, my students, now make $150,000 in their first year out.

Employers are running very hard to attract talent at all levels. One of the things that they're doing is throwing more money at workers. That's going to attract some workers, but I think the important point is that many workers, what they really want is not higher salaries but a better balance between family life and work life.

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