Thursday, November 28, 2013

"Wonder Women: Muddling Through, and More" by Prof. Susan Apel

This is the final post by our guest blogger, Prof. Susan Apel of Vermont Law School.  We thank her for her stimulating observations. 

Read it and weep. Debora Spar’s Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection is another treatise on the “women having it all” debate. The problem is of course most acute for mothers, who are exhausting themselves while juggling the bulk of child care (in addition to citing careful empirical research, Spar dares the reader to take an informal poll among one’s friends to see how many fathers have made dental appointments for their children) with demands of the workplace. Moreover, mothers are vastly underpaid compared to childless women, who, as we all know, are significantly underpaid compared to men. Here is the bad news: the problems are not going away any time soon. Like fairy tale heroines, women continue to wait for their princes to come, both at home and at the office. The home version will arrange his own life to become a full partner in childrearing and all things domestic; the office version will institute “family-friendly” policies that will enable mothers, and fathers, to tend to sick children and attend school plays. Both of these models have stalled in production.

What are women to do? Spar suggests, albeit not too seriously, giving up on men and/or on children, although she quickly acknowledges that most women will not do that. Another possibility is giving up entirely, and returning to traditional men-as-breadwinners, women-as-domestic -engineers, roles. Also not palatable, or in most cases, possible. Finally, she posits “muddling through,” which includes at least two changes. The first is giving up on perfection, and she is talking about behavior, not just attitude adjustment: She writes, “So we need to stop trying to be so damn perfect. Especially in those areas like cupcake making and nursery decoupage where, to be honest, the stakes are pretty low. . .we are keeping our houses too clean, our kids too hypoallergenic, our families too well costumed and organized.” Her second proposal is a return to good old fashioned feminist political organizing, for things that could help families, like government-sponsored child care. (Spar at 168-72)

I would add a tip from Sheryl “Lean In” Sandberg, who says that the choice of whether to have a life partner, and who that partner is, is the most important career decision a woman can make. (Sandberg, Lean In, at 110) Even if the prince model has not been perfected and supplies are limited, women have got to get smarter about if and whom they choose to marry, and once having chosen, they need to get tougher with their spouses. As someone who has supervised many people in an office setting, I am always struck by the number of times women have negotiated vigorously with me about their need for flexibility on one or more occasions, yet they will freely admit that they would never make anything close to similar demands on their husbands.

Finally, I would ask for more than a brief moment of consideration of Spar’s first two suggestions. I am a woman who, like Spar and many others, loves men, and don’t want to give them up. Also, I am one of the increasing numbers of women who have decided not to have children. I don’t think it wise to counsel women to give up on what they want from life, including a husband and kids. I do think it wise to ask women to reflect, and to choose with full knowledge of the consequences of those choices. In the blindness of love, maybe women don’t want to read empirical research that shows that female job applicants with children are 44% less likely to be hired than childless women, and that fathers are 19% more likely to be hired than men without children (Spar at 7), but they should. Not a reader? Look up. Do you see any mothers with jobs outside of the home who aren’t experiencing vertigo in the attempt to achieve work-life balance?

Simply knowing something will not effect change, and change is desperately needed. But maybe the pain that women feel is not so much that they can’t have it all, but that they believed they could, and in the cold light of day, have to juggle everything AND live with their disappointment. (Spar makes this point as well in a somewhat different context.) Muddling through may be a good strategy; it might be a happier strategy if women made their choices with full and complete information. Shouldn’t we be teaching all of this, including the cold hard stats, in junior high?

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