Thursday, August 5, 2010

Has Feminism Ruined It for the Working Mother?

“Women do almost as well as men today, as long as they don’t have children.”

This week, New York Times writer David Leonhard wrote an interesting article about working mothers. His argument ties really nicely to the rousing discussion we had on Adulthood just a few weeks ago.

Leonhard sees the Supreme Court as an example of how working mothers are discriminated against in the workplace. He writes, “The last three men nominated to the Supreme Court have all been married and, among them, have seven children. The last three women — Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Harriet Miers (who withdrew) — have all been single and without children. This little pattern makes the court a good symbol of the American job market.”

Leonhard goes on to highlight the disparity in salaries between men and women (on average, women make 23% less than men -- that is a lot) and he blames the economy for giving women very little options when it comes to career and family.

Leonhard writes that the time women take off for maternity leave and other parenting leave often closes off career paths and takes away opportunity for women to get promotions (and thus, higher pay).

Why is does it close off career paths?

Leonhard suggests it is a cultural phenomenon. He quotes Columbia Professor, Jane Walfogel, “American feminists made a conscious choice to emphasize equal rights and equal opportunities” says Walfogel, “but not to talk about policies that would address family responsibilities.” Leonhard contends that it is not sexism that creates gender equality in the workplace, but rather the consequences of “not following the old-fashion career path.” (i.e. taking time off work to birth a child)

Women with children are more likely to opt for flexible schedules, or work part time, or take more time off, he says. Until society and the economy stop viewing these options as a career-destroyer, Leonhard thinks not much will change.

Leonhard calls for open and honest dialogue about the demands of being a working parent (fathers and mothers alike), suggesting that this real dialogue may eventually change the workplace paradigm that punishes women for being mothers.

As Walfogel said, “Women do almost as well as men today, as long as they don’t have children.”

What do you think?

Can women have it all: a great job, a family, and a balanced life? Did the feminist push for equal rights in the workplace damage women’s opportunities to succeed as a full-time working parent? Do you agree or disagree with Leonhard’s claim? Let’s have a discussion! Sound off in the comments.


(photo by *midtownsky* photostream via Flickr)


  1. How can the feminist movement have damaged the potential career paths of working mothers when there was very little potential for mothers to work before that?
    The feminist movement opened up the workplace. It gave each of us a decision to make based on what we deem most important.
    For those who wanted both a family and a career it is a difficult choice, fraught with mixed emotions and tinted by cultural mores: the decision to be driven in your career vs. driving the kids to school plays and doctor appointments. It doesn't have to be either/or, but there are consequences. Severe sleep deprivation being one, dealing with the innate guilt over "not being there", another. (Before I was a mother I didn't think that sort of guilt existed. Now I know that motherhood is made up of mostly guilt over pretty much everything. Not the case with fatherhood, funnily enough. But I digress.)
    If a woman is willing to push, and has cooperation, then she can have everything. Case-in-point: My sister-in-law is a lawyer on a partner track. She has two young children who are cosntantly sick. The key for her is that my brother is amazingly awesome and supports her and does everything he can to help her succeed.
    I am lucky that my job is not as demanding of my time above and beyond the regular work-week. I am also lucky that I have a husband who supports my passion (writing, of course) and is amazing with my boys so that I can have the time I need to write as much as I need to to do what I ahve to do. Granted, when inspiration strikes I spend weeks on end exhausted in every way until the muse takes her leave, but in the end I have something to show for it. And I am willing to trade sleep for my craft, even when I know I will have to get up at 3am because one of the boys is crying . . . again.
    And perhaps I have strayed off topic a bit. I am not currently making money off of my writing, but it is my passion, and if I could do that for a living, if I had my ideal job, I KNOW that I could have it all. It's not easy, but it's possible.

  2. Whoa, without feminism we would have 0 women on the supreme court. And what, those men had 7 children? How did they balance? Hmmm....maybe they had STRONG women in their lives pulling the parenting weight. Now that feminism has gotten past the women in the workforce, it needs to shift the focus to pushing for STRONG men who can work AND raise children. And I'm talking packing lunches and taking kids to the doctor and baking for the bake sale. No one asks how men balance because everyone knows how. They've got back up. Equality means backing each other up, no matter what sex you are. Women deserve backup too. We shouldn't settle for anything less.

  3. Cheers to those comments! That is what makes this blog pretty great (small, but great) -- I (and everyone who reads the awesome comments) really learn from the dialogue. Thank you for contributing to this discussion.

  4. feminism battle aside...I like the point about flexibility. though I am not a mother, I find that flexibility in my job is really important to me. Why does the work week have to be 40 hours for everyone? In an increasingly 24/7 world, why should work hours have to be 9-5? I once mentioned to my boyfriend, an ambitious engineer, how it would be fun to move to a random country and do whatever for a while. He noted that it would be detrimental to his career. I think it is sad that corporate life sees no place for detours, when I've found the detours can teach you so much. in fact I was listening to a speech the other day (a TED talk maybe? I can't remember) that posited that we need more renaissance thinkers. That in our increasingly focused studies and career paths we could be missing valuable connections between fields. I think being able to take time to do something else for a while could actually provide a better integration and understanding, both in life and in business.