Monday, March 05, 2007

Uterus on Strike

Opinion - Columbia Spectator
[O]ne would think that having the majority of women actively participating in the workforce would be cause for celebration. That is, until one notices the disparate differences in wages between mothers and non-mothers, the United States' failure to administer paid maternity leave, and the lack of laws that protect the rights of mothers. These problems were brought to light in Kara Jesella's New York Times article "Mom's Mad. And She's Organized." and were some of the same factors that piqued the attention of Cornell sociology professor Shelley Correll. Her interest in the "motherhood penalty," or the how "stereotypic beliefs associated with motherhood bias affect workplace evaluations, pay, and hiring decisions of women who are mothers," has led to studies conducted both with undergraduates and real employers who were asked to evaluate resumes of potential employees.
Sigh. I'm really into breaking down ideas these days, so let's continue.

At heart, the assertion is that we need to change the structure and nature of the workplace so that women who are taking on stereotypical mothering roles can participate without the hardships and obstacles naturally posed by that lifestyle choice.

There well may be some teeth to this. It would have to be seen as a kind of affirmative action - bending the rules so that we can incorporate women into the workforce in greater numbers. It would be based not on any one woman's individual right to have special accommodations, but on an idea that it is generally better for society if we make sacrifices to accomplish our collectively beneficial role of being more inclusive.

I have in the past rejected the idea that mothers have such individual rights, but it deserves more attention. At heart, each woman is making a choice - not just the choice to be mother, but to become a primary caretaker - to enter into parenthood without a mate who shares equally in the task. This right must be based on some sort of argument that asserts the biological imperative of procreation creates such rights. After all, where else can we derive the assertion that someone's choices give them extensive rights for rules that apply only to them? However, I don't see how we would make the connection between biology and rights here, anymore than we could make the argument that someone has a right to surf on company time because finding a mate is a likewise natural drive.

While one could make a colorable argument that she is contributing to society, I will reiterate the point that this alone cannot substantiate a demand for special accommodations, any more than a returning Peace Corps volunteer could demand a right to be reinstated in her old job. Furthermore, this idea itself is disputable, especially in light of overpopulation and bad parenting. If we were to base assistance on the idea that mothers are doing a positive good, could we not then demand an accounting of that fact? I doubt many would endorse a scheme whereby we evaluate the quality of parenting.

But there is a need for more women in the workforce. Attaining a 'critical mass' would go a long way to making the office be a more open and comfortable place for all women. As long as females form a small plurality or act as 'tokens', the nature of the workplace will remain the same. We will be forced to adapt to a man's world, and the (arguable) results of a male-dominated workplace will remain in force. While changing that workplace might seem like a claim akin to the same special accommodations demanded by mothers, it is not. This culture has little to do with productivity, and what we are hoping for is a natural result, not a forced ban on sports talk and machismo.

And while it might be based on unfortunate and controllable factors, it still remains a reality that increasing the number of women in the workforce means changing the rules to suit primary care-giving mothers. No matter how much such situations are a choice, their existence will remain an obstacle to workplace gender parity for the foreseeable future.

If one is crafting this on par with affirmative action, the alternative scenario deserves attention. What is a workplace without such special rule for mothers? Imagine, for the sake of argument, that you could even remove the cultural aspects of this; the forces that allow mothers to leave early with little questioning. We would essentially have four types of workers: 1) the childless, 2) those with a spouse who bears most of the childcare duties, 3) those who share equally in the task, and 4) those who practice a form of nanny or daycare based absentee parenting. While both genders would be represented in the first group, men will dominate the second, while the fourth category will be mostly women. The workplace will become a space where childcare interference is rare, where an employer is not mandated to hold open positions for pregnant women, and where the special benefits granted to parents are less. In other words - a more efficient and productive place, at the cost of gender balance.

I would contend that there are both positive and negative aspects to both scenarios. Chosing between them is a matter of policy; a matter of choosing priorities, and of choosing the level of governmental interference with the free market. I seriously doubt that any of these issues are going to be resolved anytime soon.

However, unless we divorce ourselves from the assumption that mothers have an inherent, individual right to special workplace accommodations, an assumption based on deep-seated traditions and emotional underpinnings, we will never make an honest assessment of what the correct balance is.

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