Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent article in The Atlantic about the structural barriers to mothers truly succeeding (and even surviving) in the workplace, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” was like a lit match touched to a fuse. To any mother in America today, it’s obvious why: day in and day out we are forced to decide what’s more important: our work (and the financial security it brings our families) or our kids. The result ranges from poverty and inequality to under-parented kids to a real lack of women leaders in American business and government.
While we don’t think “having it all” is a pertinent, realistic, even definable goal, we know that mothers, their families, and our society more broadly would be far better off with public and workplace policies that not only acknowledge that workers have children (current policy suggests we’re not even there yet), but supports parents in a way that keeps them connected to the workforce, allows them to excel there, and affords them the time required to parent responsibly.
The raging national dialog that has followed Slaughter’s article surfaced a key fact: most mothers in the U.S. have nothing close to “it all.” They lack flexibility, predictability, equal pay, paid time off, paid family leave after a birth, paid medical leave to care for aging parents (or themselves), and are too often flat-out discriminated against when seeking work, promotions, or a raise. In fact, many mothers are barely scraping by. With three-quarters of U.S. mothers in the labor force today – and nearly half serving as primary breadwinners for their families – this is not a woman’s issue or a mother’s issue, it’s an urgent community and economic issue that our country and our state have too long ignored, choosing to frame the problem as one of individual responsibility for each family to solve on its own. Thing is, when every single family is trying to solve the same problems and suffering when they can’t, it’s not an individual problem, it’s a systems failure.
We need to overhaul our system (a structurally un-family-friendly workplace culture) for two main reasons: 1) when accomplished women in their most promotable working years are still parenting in-home children – as is common with today’s older childbearing trends – there aren’t enough women leaders because the family sacrifices required are too great for most mothers. And this country needs more women leaders to equalize wealth accumulation and power. And 2) the majority of mothers aren’t faring well economically and our outdated policies that too often trade people for profits are keeping it that way.
Here’s what it looks like out there: nearly a quarter of families with young children live in poverty, quality childcare in Oregon often costs more than in-state college tuition and more than minimum-wage mothers earn, nearly 80 percent of low-wage workers (and about 40 percent of all private-sector workers) don’t have access to a single paid sick day from work, and our nearly-20-year-old unpaid family and medical leave policy isn’t available to all workers and it’s unaffordable to many who are eligible. And for women of color, undocumented immigrant women, and queer women it is only worse.
If we are serious about solving this crisis (and it is a crisis), it is time to take concrete steps in our workplaces and our legislature to support and elevate our mothers and their families. Let’s not just talk about family values (we’ve done that!), let’s live them. Here’s how:
- Allow all workers to accrue paid sick time off when they work. It’s fair, good for community health and health care costs, and it turns out that it’s good for business, too. How? Higher morale and productivity, healthier workers and customers, and less costly turnover.
- Start a paid family leave insurance program. This is a common-sense way for families – with and without kids – to save for standard family events that take chunks of time like birth, adoption, terminal illness, and surgery.
- Update our childcare system to reflect our current childcare needs. When 70% of kids are growing up in families headed by a single parent or two working parents (compared to 70% in 1960 having one parent at home full-time) our childcare needs have shifted tectonically. Right now childcare is so unaffordable that some parents don’t work as a result and other families use substandard care because it is the only affordable “option” available to them. Fully funding the Employment Related Daycare (ERDC) program to enable all parents who qualify to work who couldn’t otherwise is one obvious step. Adding universal pre-school connected to our K-12 public education system is a no-brainer, albeit a cultural shift that requires a community conversation, planning, and investment.
- Workplaces should incorporate family-friendly policies like telework, less required face-time when possible, paid time off, real living wages, predictable scheduling for childcare needs, school-time meeting policies and nursing spaces, whenever possible. Acknowledging that all workers are also non-workers with outside responsibilities and lives is not just realistic, it’s a smart way to work.
- Require equal pay for equal work. On average women still earn only $0.77 for every $1.00 a man earns for equal work. For mothers – and women of color, it’s even less. With so many families today depending on mothers’ wages, this discrimination hurts whole families.
- Take a good hard look at our outdated, agrarian school calendar and how its 18 weeks off impacts working families. Modernize it so both student and working family needs are better accommodated. It’s long been known that our long summer vacation fails all students, but especially lower-income students who aren’t in quality, educational care during summer months. Guess what? It fails parents, too.
The goal of these common-sense, family-forward policies is to create pathways for mothers – and their families – to stay financially stable throughout their lives, to reach positions of leadership where we need them, and to begin to restructure our economy to reflect real family values. And if any state can figure this one out, it’s Oregon.