Of course, not everyone wants to be a CEO or the executive editor of the New York Times, and what holds back highly privileged, upper-class women may be life-saving for others. “Suppose it’s true, suppose some of these programs have the effect of lowering the glass ceiling,” says Janet Gornick, a professor of political science and sociology at CUNY who’s studied workplace flexibility extensively. “You’re trading off—maybe you’re harming the top 10 percent, but the bottom 90 really need this stuff. If you’re a working class, single mom, you want to be in Sweden. If you want to be a CEO, maybe you want to live in the U.S.”
So what’s a well-meaning policymaker to do? “You know, it’s a very hard tradeoff between allowing and encouraging women to participate as much as they can at various times in their life cycle,” acknowledges Blau. “And actually encouraging them to have a lesser commitment.”
Parental leave could also be designed to better encourage gender equity. “Use it or lose it” policies that offer nontransferable parental leave to fathers as well as mothers, as opposed to policies where parents choose how to share the leave, encourage fathers to do their share. “Babies, as far as I know, have two sets of chromosomes,” says Claudia Goldin. “We need to do what the Swedes have done and say it’s both parents’ responsibility. To make it a women-oriented policy is to make it a family-oriented policy.”
“Iceland is a brilliant example,” says Janet Gornick. “They had a shareable policy, and then they broke it into threes—three for him, three for her, three to be shared. As soon as the men got the three months that couldn’t be given away, their use of it skyrocketed.”
Reducing the stigma associated with the kinds of detours and flexible work arrangements that can help facilitate women’s careers may be the best way to improve gender equality in the U.S. Norms around family-friendly policies clearly are changing for the better. According to Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, the costs of workplace flexibility have declined in every profession—and some unexpected professions are downright utopian in their flexibility. For example, 36 percent of female pediatricians worked part-time hours in 2006, up from 28 percent in 2000.
“I’ve been watching over a long period of time and employers are getting more interested in this issue,” says Blau. “And one way to look at it is if you look at the graduates of these programs, there are lots of women. I think firms have an incentive to be concerned.”
Despite this progress, however, stigmas persist, even in academia, which Anne-Marie Slaughter praised for its flexible scheduling. One academic, who briefly worked a reduced schedule when her children were small, apologetically declined my interview request, explaining that she just didn’t feel comfortable advertising her previous part-time status as she’s about to be considered for full-professor. Family-friendly policies may be the best way to encourage women to remain in the workforce, but as long as these kinds of alternative arrangements and career paths are overwhelmingly utilized by women and ignored by men, workers will pay a price for taking advantage of them.
For her part, Francine Blau points to one reform that’s unambiguously good for children, women of all classes, and gender equality: subsidized, high-quality childcare. “It really dovetails with another problem that I’ve been recently concerned with – rising inequality in our country,” she says. “I’d love to see more emphasis on universal pre-K programs.”