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Posts Tagged ‘Child care’

imagesThe Year of the Woman? Oy vey.

It’s a phrase that’s always struck me as ridiculous. It would be one thing to declare it the Year of the Short, Redheaded, Left-Handed Woman, or the Year of the Unmarried, Urban-dwelling Thirtysomething Woman, or the Year of the Woman Who Doesn’t Want to Have It All, but, I mean, half the people there are are women. Saying its our year is so broad as to be totally meaningless. And more than a tad condescending. (And, as any good writer knows, a mere three examples is all it takes to make a trend. Which is to say, as easy as it would be to round up three examples that prove it is indeed the year of the woman, it’d be equally simplistic to find three examples that demonstrate that, no, in fact, this was not such a good year for women.)

Interestingly, I got to thinking about this idea while reading Sunday’s New York Times magazine, which, upon first glance, would seem to be proclaiming 2012 as a the year of the woman. The cover story, “Hollywood Heroines,” is accompanied by a beautiful photo spread that spans 21 pages and features the big screen’s biggest ladystars of the year. It’s exactly the sort of thing you see, and expect the accompanying text to be proclaiming the dearth of quality female characters over, the representation equaled, the hierarchy overturned! (Citing three examples, natch.) Oh, actually, the deck did say that the hierarchy had been overturned. But, turns out, the piece, written by A.O. Scott, was right on the money, and its lessons stretch far beyond the reaches of tinsel town.

Scott cites some good examples of movies from this year that feature strong female characters, and/or pass the Bechel Test (the shockingly simple, yet equally, perhaps more, shockingly impossible-to-pass test comprised of three criterion: 1. the movie must have at least two named women characters; 2. they must talk to each other; 3. about something besides a man).

But the heart of the matter, I think, is this:

The rush to celebrate movies about women has a way of feeling both belated and disproportionate. Pieces of entertainment become public causes and punditical talking points, burdened with absurdly heavy expectations and outsize significance… It is a fact beyond dispute that the roles available to women in what movie-lovers nervously call the real world have expanded significantly in the last half-century, a fact at once celebrated and lamented in backward-looking pop-cultural phenomena like “Mad Men.” But the things that women do–the people they insist on being remain endlessly controversial. It takes very little for individual tastes and decisions to become urgent matters of public debate. It takes, basically, a magazine cover article. Women are breast-feeding their babies, pushing their children to practice violin, reading ’50 Shades of Grey’ on the subway, juggling career and child care, marrying late or not at all, falling behind or taking over the world. Stop the presses!

The problem is not that these issues are not important but rather that they are presented with a sensationalism that tends to undermine their ongoing and complicated significance. The behavior of a woman who appears on the public stage can be counted on to provoke a contentious referendum on the state of women in general. Is this good for women? Is she doing it wrong? This happened, in the last 12 months, to Sandra Fluke and Paula Broadwell, to Rihanna and Ann Romney, and, closer to the matter at hand, to Lena Dunham.

You did not really think I would get through a whole essay on gender and popular culture without mentioning her, did you? But the reception of ‘Girls,’ even more than the show itself–which is, to keep things in perspective,  a clever half-hour sitcom about a bunch of recent college graduates–is an interesting sign of our confused times. Dunham was mocked for her body, sneered at for her supposed nepotism, scolded for her inadequate commitment to diversity and lectured about the inappropriate things her alter ego, Hannah Horvath, does in bed. That much of the criticism came from Dunham’s peers is both evidence of a robust feminist discourse in the cultural blogosphere and a legacy of the under- and misrepresentation I have been talking about. Dunham was not quite allowed just to explore her own ideas and experiences. She was expected to get it right, to represent, to set an example and blaze a path.

And while the great majority of us are not Lena Dunham, I’d say that pressure and that judgment–and, more to the point, that expectation that we’re gonna be judged–is something we all deal with. Because no matter how many movies about women or girl heroes or headlines about secretaries of state or tiger mothers get paraded out on (to borrow Scott’s point) magazine covers, the message we take home has far less to do with the specific example itself than it does the analysis. What we absorb is this: Whatever you do, every choice you make, says everything about you, and, by God, you’re gonna be judged for it.

When we write about women and choices and the struggles we have determining what to do with our lives, I think we can’t overstate the lesson here. In order to make choices that are right for us, individually, we have to recognize how much of our pro and con lists are occupied by these pressures. The pressure to get it right, to represent, to set an example, to blaze a path. It’s interesting to wonder, if we could somehow apply a filter that’d shut those considerations down, how much easier our choices would be.

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Now that the chatter about Marissa Mayer has started to grow cold, let me admit that the whole conversation has pissed me off.

In case you’ve spent the past few days under a rock or — same thing — totally unplugged, Marissa Mayer is the former Google superstar who was annointed CEO of Yahoo on Monday. Her story went viral when she casually announced that she was preggers, telling Fortune Magazine: “My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I’ll work throughout it.”  Those 14 words ignited a shitstorm.

What made me incredibly cranky is how retro the conversation quickly became: It wasn’t about Marissa Mayer, 37-year-old brainiac tapped to become one of only 20 women at the helm of a Fortune 500 company. But Marissa Mayer, new mom:  How on earth will she manage?  When will she bond with her newborn?  How in the hell will she ever run Yahoo (which, it should be noted, is in desperate need of turnaround.)

All the backchat and the judging that came with it? Sheer lunacy.  And, yeah, more than a little bit retro:  Would we be talking about any of this if a soon-to-be-a-father had gotten the top job at a major U.S. company?  You know the answer. No effing way.

What makes me crazy is what we’re not talking about: the real reason the conversation caught fire in the first place. And that’s the fact that the U.S. remains one of the least family-friendly countries in the industrialized world when it comes to public policy and workplace structures. And that, when it comes to managing the almighty juggle between home and work, the problem is seen as purely a woman’s to solve.

We never seem to question that.  Or ask why, when we talk about ambitious women like Mayer, we make what should be the political intensely personal: What will she do?

Who cares? What really matters is what we – men and women alike – need to do to make work work for all of us. Let’s start with public policy. Ours sucks. To demonstrate just how much, look at Sweden. As we reported in Undecided, Sweden subsidizes preschool and elder care—and provides thirteen months of paid parental leave that can be taken in any increments until the child turns eight—reserving at least two months of that leave for fathers. As a result, 85 percent of fathers take parental leave. And those who don’t often face the stink-eye from family, friends, and coworkers.

By contrast, here in the U.S., the Family Medical Leave Act entitles eligible employees unpaid, job-protected leave for twelve workweeks after the birth of a child.  Period. As for valuing work-life balance? In spring of 2010, Congress failed to pass the Work–Life Balance Award Act, a thoroughly benign bill that would have established an award for businesses that develop and implement work–life balance policies.  And child care? Legislation to establish early childhood education and day care programs, with tuition on a sliding scale, was passed by both houses back in 1971.  Then-president Richard Nixon vetoed it.  Some forty years later, the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies reports that only one out of six children eligible for child care assistance receives it.

Then there’s the workplace itself, which is still more reflective of the days of Don Draper, where there was always a Betty at home to take care of business, and Don could come home (or not) whenever it suited him. But how many families live like that anymore?  In this economy, how many could?  And so Betty, like Don, puts in the expected 52-hour workweek, and then comes home to do the laundry.  And sure, while many forward-thinking companies now allow employees to be flexible, what that often means is that, whether you’re at the office or at home, more than likely, you’re at work.  At two jobs.

And finally, let’s look at our social culture, by which I mean: where are the men? Despite the fact that most working women put in the same long hours as their husbands, when they come home, they still own the second shift.  To this day, we largely define work-outside-of-work in traditional gender terms: men do the yardwork and take care of the car, women do the dishes and take care of the kids. This is not to put down the male gender: I’m sure there are any number of guys out there who are more than willing to pick up the kids or fold the clothes, as a 2011 Boston College Center for Work & Family report on “The New Dad” found.  But where the conflict arises, Brad Harrington, executive director of the Center for Work & Family told Diversity Executive Magazine is within the cultural context:

Many working dads are stymied in their desire to spend more time at home because of age-old perceptions of men’s roles, both at home and at work. But it’s also partly because men want to have the best of both worlds. While many men in the Boston College study expressed an increased interest in being at home with their children, a large percentage also said they wanted to have greater responsibilities at work.

So trust me.  I am delighted that  Marissa Mayer was hired as CEO of Yahoo while being, you know, openly pregnant. She’s a great example of the fact that a woman can use her brain and her uterus at the same time.  And as such, she is sure to start chipping away at the maternal wall that holds many of us back when it comes to positions of power.  But let’s go beyond the obvious.  Rather than opining on whether Mayer will be a good mommy, what we really ought to be talking about is why the workplace remains so incompatible with motherhood in the first place – and why we assume that fixing that incompatibility is women’s work.

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