Student Reflection: Obstacles to Gender Equality at Work and Home, in Reaction to Rosenblum

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The following is a guest post by Margaret Serrano, a student at Pace University School of Law (JD expected 2013).

Pace Law School Professor Darren Rosenblum posted yesterday to his Huffington Post Blog (here) to criticize Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In for failing to recognize the “central role played by public policy” in to increasing gender equality in the work place. “Reversing centuries of corporate sexism will not happen just because women wish it,” he explains. Private sector focused efforts such as those advanced by Sandberg “are doomed to fail,” he predicts, “because they ignore how our legal system establishes rules to stack men into high-power jobs and women onto the ‘mommy track’…only if the state ‘leans in’ to shift public policy and expectations will people be permitted to contribute to work and family, without regard to one’s sex.”

I reacted strongly to this post (not to mention Rosenblum’s 2010 Unsex Mothering Article) because it stirred up so many of the stereotypes that have been affecting my own life in the five years since I became a parent. In my family, beyond the breastfeeding, which, of course I do, my husband is the one who spends more hours of the day with our children, while I take on more professional and financial activities and responsibility.

As such, we have endured years of comments from friends, relatives, and passers-by to the effect that my husband must be some kind of a lazy bum for wanting to spend so much time in the home. Then there are those like Hanna Rosin who feel a need to point out how undesirable and sexually unappealing men who care for children are, despite advocating that more of them should take on this role (see her 2012 book The End of Men and the Rise of Women, especially the chapter “The Seesaw Marriage: True Love (Just for Elites),” replete with anecdotes of men who feel emasculated by their role in the home sphere, and women who look down on them in various different ways because of it). Also, pretty much every time my husband comes home from taking our children somewhere, he tells stories of nosy strangers who feel entitled to ask him if he has thought of whether our not our crying baby is hungry (would that not obviously be anyone’s first thought?!), and who always want to know where the baby’s mother his (because, of course, I am really the one whose responsibility this really is if our child is crying).

On the flip side of this same coin, I have had it suggested many times that I am an irresponsible woman, or at best silly and naive, for not having had the good sense to have married a wealthy man who can take care of me while I can stay home with my children. Further, I have received much purportedly well-meaning advice to the affect that my children will necessarily turn out stupider or emotionally scarred because I have periodically sent them to daycare settings. These are all very typical experiences in the mommy wars; I know I haven’t been a particular target of abuse.

Until I became pregnant with my daughter Jasmine in 2007, I more or less unexaminedly believed that today’s world was free of gender discrimination, because everyone seemed to express feelings that it should be and, well, hadn’t we all come a long way? Then, of course, I became a parent and I quickly learned, even before I gave birth, that the world may claim to be ready to treat women as equals to men, but not if children are involved. I have been on about 14 job interviews while visibly pregnant (thankfully each string of interviews did eventually lead to a job, both in 2007 and in 2012). It was interesting to observe each of the interviewers squirm around the fact that he (yes, actually all but two were men!) was dying to ask me how in God’s name I planned to do good work for him once I had the baby. Many of them even went ahead and asked, or had their secretaries ask me, purportedly outside of the interview. Then, I had to wonder if those who didn’t ask were worse, because that probably meant they were writing me off without the chance to explain how I planned to do it.

Around this same time I started to notice that most women who do make it to elevated professional positions, let’s say Supreme Court justices or corporate board members, don’t have children. Things like this made me begin to wonder why there aren’t quotas, not for women, but rather in favor of people who are caregivers for children? Wouldn’t that be what would really show that society is really supporting families and the best interest of children? If that can’t happen in our society, aren’t we then setting a clear expectation that all people choose between having families and fully participating in the professional world? Are we OK with that as a society? Isn’t there a valuable perspective that people who know what it’s like to care for children bring? Isn’t it unacceptably sad that those who run our world are denied the opportunity to be close to their family (don’t we all know a rich and powerful older man who regrets all the time he never could spend with his family, or his children who are still in therapy over it)? We really need to think hard about what this all means and make sure that we, as a people, can live with our the consequences of our actions in this regard.

I also had one last thought regarding policies to advance gender equality in the work place. I agree that it would be much, much better for our country to have a leave policy, like that of Sweden (as Rosenblum details in both pieces of writing cited here), which comes much closer to supporting all parents in childcare roles. If that cannot and will not be in our society for now, however, I wonder if it wouldn’t be more honest for all jobs to be openly, explicitly designated as jobs for primary caregivers and jobs not for primary caregivers.

I know this is a very problematic proposal, and not at all practical, but the fact that it would be more honest says something important. That way, at least, employers could stop pretending that they are not having to gain information through backdoor methods about who they want to hire, or simply avoid hiring or promoting women in general. Additionally, applicants, men or women, could have a clear idea about what jobs they can or should apply for, and perhaps there would be jobs more clearly available for those who wanted to ramp down but still remain in the work force for some years. I am not sure how to express what I am getting at with this idea yet, but I guess I would like to find a way to shed some light on the suppressed dishonesty of workforce discrimination today, if we can’t get a leave policy like Sweden’s at this point in time. Or maybe I am seeking a way to articulate a remedy for discrimination centered around on disclosure about employer’s true requirements. I will keep pondering this idea.

-Margaret Serrano

title of post updated 3/17/13 – ed.

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