Sexism and Motherhood

Thought experiment:  Let’s say I told you (and this is true) that my wife and I both work, we have two young children, and we try to take care of the house work and child care as complete equals.  We share tasks, and since she (being a CPA) handles all the family finances, I tend to do the baths and put the kids to bed to give her time to do that.  My base salary is a bit less than hers, which is great — the more she makes the better!  I certainly am not bothered by that.  OK.  You might say, gee, I’m a good husband, having a modern appreciation of the challenges women face in the workplace.  You might pat me on the back, or say that she’s lucky to have me and not someone more stuck in the past.   NOW…what if I reversed what I wrote above.  What if she was saying that about herself, what if the roles were reversed?

If that were to happen, she’d get none of the praise I’d get.  Even though she’d be doing the exact same things I’m doing now, people would respond by saying she’s lucky to have a husband that shares the housework and childcare.  For doing the same thing I do she’d get no extra praise or credit, and some people would consider her benefiting from the way the relationship is structured.  See the inequality?  For doing what would bring a man considerable praise, the woman gets no credit, that’s expected of her.  That’s a deeply engrained societal prejudice, and one that is especially unfair to women.

Yesterday I saw an interesting presentation from psychologist Dr. Alison Terry on the difficulties mothers have breaking through the glass ceiling, getting top level positions at major corporations or in government.  The information she gave touches on a cultural bias that has bugged me since the birth of my first son over five years ago: the tendency to assume that mothers are supposed to do more with the children and the home.

I discussed this in my blog entry Fatherhood and Parenthood last June.  Dr. Terry’s talk, however, demonstrated to me the perniciousness of that bias, and the fact that while it may annoy me that magazines like Parenting seem to think mothers are the ones to take care of children and the house (‘time saver for moms,’ etc.), the real victims are mothers in the workplace.

Mothers are harmed much more than average women.  Although women still tend to earn less in the work force, in a study where people were given basically the same resume, men with children were suggested for the job 70%, women with children (and the same qualifications) only 30%.  Whereas the salary recommendation for men and women was very close (I believe around $148,000 or so, with women slightly less than men), women with children saw the rate go down to $139,000, while children benefited men, raising it to $154,000.  That wasn’t the only study cited in a presentation full of information and examples, but it is an example that demonstrates the nature of this cultural prejudice.

Men having children benefit in their career because it is assumed they will be more stable and conservative.  They won’t try to job hop, they’ll be diligent, and there will be pressure to work hard to earn more for the family.  Women are hurt by having children because it is assumed they’ll miss more days due to child illnesses or other child care issues, and be more devoted to family than work.  This is exacerbated by our societal tendency to overwork.  Most people who earn over $100,000 a year work well over 40 hours a week, many even over 60.  They expect similar work ethics from their underlings, and see it as a lack of devotion to work to want to balance work and family.  This is unhealthy on a variety of levels, but at base it demonstrates a bias of material concerns over family — especially at the upper levels of society.  It becomes impossible to truly balance family and work because so much work is expected for anyone trying to move to the top.

There is no clear solution to this problem.  Our tendency to overwork increases stress and decreases quality family time.  Add that to our bias against mothers, and women again bear the heaviest burden.  Overt sexism remains as well.  It is common for people to say that sexism is a thing of the past, and indeed, we have made progress.  Yet here at Farmington business majors are predominately male, and it’s rare to find males in education — especially areas like Elementary and Early Childhood Education.    Which of those careers will earn the most money?

Since the problem is cultural, the solution rests with our culture, and it will take time to remedy.  I think we’re on that path.  Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin and other women are starting to rise towards the top.  Nancy Pelosi not only became the first female Speaker of the House, but she’s being recognized increasingly as a very competent and tough leader.   And while only 2% of top leaders in Fortune 1000 firms are women, there is an increase in women in middle management.  Perhaps its only a matter of time before the culture shifts enough to create more balance.   At the same time, it’s important that today’s young boys grow up to NOT expect a wife to cook and keep house, but instead to see raising a family as a partnership.

While some families choose to have a parent stay home, it can be either the father or mother, and increasingly men are making that choice.  Also, I think we’re overcoming the false guilt given to parents who use day care.  The traditional way to raise children was to have the villages children together in one place, watched over while men and women did the work to survive.  Isolating kids with a parent and siblings doesn’t strike me as healthy, unless there are a lot of play dates and opportunities to interact with others.

Still, it’s infuriating that mothers still bear the highest cost.   The expectations of them are greater.  The man isn’t questioned and doesn’t feel guilty if the family hires a nanny or a maid, should both have high stress, high pay jobs.  Inlaws, parents and others pressure women to play roles that are obsolete.  The good news is that taking a birds eye view, things are changing slowly but surely, and such change can be nothing but slow — that’s how cultures work.  Our culture is shifting dramatically vast in many ways, the world is so much different in this regard than 20 or 30 years ago.  Mothers in the work world do have it far better here than in China or much of the world.  The only place with real equality seems to be Scandinavia.

But that doesn’t do much mitigate the discrimination that does exist now against mothers.   So all I can suggest is that we men try extra hard to do what we can to minimize the burdens, and put our egos aside if a women makes more money.  More money to the household is a good thing, no matter who brings it in!  More importantly, we should raise our daughters to believe they can do anything, and they expect a man who will be a supportive partner, and our sons to see girls as true equals.  June Cleaver, the stereotypical mom of the 50s, will hopefully be looked at in a few decades as reflecting a backwards and bizarre notion of womanhood.  Until then, Mother’s Day and International Women’s Day should be seen as reflecting a continuing cultural struggle for real equality.

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  1. #1 by renaissanceguy on September 27, 2008 - 00:19

    My initial reaction as I read you post was “Wow! How far we have fallen!”

    While I respect the right of individuals to make whatever decisions they want for their family, I think it is completely bizarre that we now overlook biological facts in order to justify our societal engineering.

    The primary biological fact I refer to is staring every man right in the face. Women were designed to feed their babies. Breast milk is the very best food for a newborn–not manmade formula.

    The second biological fact is the hormonal/emotional makeup of women that makes them more nurturing and caring for children–both physically and emotionally. Children love both their fathers and their mothers, but they seem to need their mothers more when they are distressed. They sense that mama is the one who will sooth them and make them feel better.

    These aren’t biases; they are inescapable facts.

  2. #2 by Scott Erb on September 27, 2008 - 00:50

    OK, women had the biological task of feeding a baby. But now that task can be shared. It’s not social engineering, it’s people being able to make choices. I also find that since I have a less demanding job in terms of stress, so I am the one the kids need when disstressed. There is no biological desire for mommy, that comes because in most cases the mothers choose to play that role. So that isn’t an inescapable fact, my experience says otherwise.

    So I’m not saying “social engineering,” I’m saying individual choice. We don’t have to be slave to past cultural constructs, we can liberate ourselves. My wife and I divide tasks on the basis of what we’re good at. I’m really good with being patient with the kids. I don’t want anyone to tell me we should be doing things differently than what suits our individual tastes because of someones’ belief about “biology.” And mothers should not be discriminated against because of that either. We’ve not fallen, we’re becoming ever more liberated!

  3. #3 by languagelover on September 29, 2008 - 04:37

    I agree with you, Scott. My wife was unable to breastfeed due to surgeries she had when she was younger. Since we bottle fed, this allowed me to be part of every single aspect of raising the children. Depending on their mood, my children might sometimes come to me for comfort, or turn to my wife. There does not appear to be any pattern to it. We have simply always been there together for them as a team. Some tasks are divided up in the household, but this is because of ability rather than genetics. My wife prefers to do the laundry, but I do most of the household cleaning. She does much of the cooking and I do much of the yardwork, but we switch when we want to.

    I recently read some interesting things about our genetics and how we have genes that protect us from diseases than can only be “caught” through cannibalism. Some sort of cannibalistic practices must have been so prevalent that our genes developed protections against the spread of diseases that were passed on through cannibalistic rituals.
    http://www.abc.net.au/science/news/stories/s828800.htm

    Why do I bring this up? To prove that our biology adapts to what we need at the time. Just because women used to HAVE to breastfeed babies in order to provide milk does not prove that we still have to follow those biological imperatives. We have evolved.

    One man’s inescapable facts are another man’s flat earth.

  4. #4 by henitsirk on February 23, 2009 - 17:42

    Well, some people might point to hormones and oxytocin as giving women more “nurturing” instincts. Perhaps that does give women an advantage. But other than actually birthing and producing milk, I agree that both parents can be equally capable in child-rearing. (I also believe in a spiritual aspect that gives preference to the mother, but I won’t go into that here as we are talking about cultural and societal structures.)

    Before my first child was born, I was making more money than my husband, so it might have been logical for him to stay home. However he had recently started a career path that was meaningful for him, whereas I disliked my job and shuddered to think I would work in that realm for very much longer anyway. So I quit and stayed home.

    Funny how we both feel pressures–he feels the pressure to make money, I feel the pressure of being the one to almost always deal with the children (during the day, at least). That hasn’t changed much now that I work from home, except that now I also feel the pressure to make money, as my income pays for private school and daycare!

    I especially like what you said about wanting our children to see us sharing equitably and not along strict gender roles. We do that to some extent–my husband cooks well and often, cleans the house, and can sew and knit! I am a bit less able/willing to do the “manly” things like take care of the car and fix broken things, but my husband is very capable there, too. Maybe I am lucky 🙂

    I also wonder about this distaste some people have for what they see as “social engineering”. Do they think social structures arise from thin air? From God? I think we create them ourselves, and the things people criticize are often simply more conscious and overt attempts to do so. Maybe some people would prefer to simply be passive recipients of and participants in social structures without having to really cognize them! I think we are far past the time when the church or overarching social custom can or should tell us what to do with gender roles. It’s a bit scary and can be hard work to come up with this stuff ourselves, but that’s our task now, I believe. (And this is not pointed at renaissanceguy, but was merely sparked by his comments.)

  5. #5 by Scott Erb on February 24, 2009 - 21:41

    Yes, I think culture is a human construct, we either reproduce the world we were born into (the social structures, shared understandings and beliefs, etc.) or we transform it. Reproduction is most common because we learn a particular way of perceiving the world is “normal” or “correct,” and it’s really only creative thinkers (or artists) that push for change. Times of crisis can also bring old understandings into question (like “Rosie the Riveter” showing women could work when WWII came). The movement of women from being afraid of education because they thought blood would go from their ovaries to their brains, rendering them childless, to where we are now has taken generations. But I can see from the younger generation that the view is certainly much different than the past, change continues slowly.

    My wife and I both work, and my job has some flexibility that her job doesn’t, so depending on the time of the year I might do a lot more house work — or less in some busy times. Of course, she handled it all while I was in Italy so I owe her big time!

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