Better Life Lab
The Future of Work, Gender, and Social Policy

Nov. 17 2017 6:44 PM

Why Paid Leave Advocates Are Skeptical About a Last-Minute GOP Tax Incentive for Paid Leave

Less than 24 hours before passing its tax overhaul through the House, the GOP revised the legislation to include a paid family leave tax credit. Why aren’t paid leave advocates celebrating?

The tax credit would return a small percentage of every employee’s wages to any company offering at least two weeks of paid leave to their employees through their annual tax return. This incentive would expire after two years.


Vicki Shabo, vice president for workplace policies and strategies at the National Partnership for Women & Families, says that this bill is only a drop in the bucket of support to businesses already taking the lead on this issue. The provision provides “a very small tax credit to businesses that voluntarily provide at least a minimal level, two weeks, of paid family or medical leave,” said Shabo. “What that practically means is a very small amount of money, 12.5 percent to 25 percent of the employee’s wages, at the end of the year as a tax return for too little time off.”

Shabo thinks this incentive is destined to fail for many reasons even if it makes it through the Senate and the Senate passes the bill: Tax credits designed to promote social policy are strategies that haven’t shown results in the past; the amount of money returned is too small for small businesses to enact new policies; the incentive expires after two years.

Ellen Bravo, an expert on paid leave and co–executive director of Family Values @ Work, agrees. Bravo believes this tax cut is too small for even big businesses to take up within the two-year time limit. Bravo argues the tax legislation will ultimately be detrimental to efforts to pass paid leave legislation at the federal level. At its best it will affect paid leave policy for just a handful of organizations at a high cost to taxpayers, and at its worst the incentive will function as a tax giveaway to big corporations simply for maintaining that status quo. Bravo says that even conservatives agree tax cuts like these would not benefit the people who need it most: small businesses and working families.

“That is why we are wary of taking a step in the wrong direction,” added Bravo, “It would be a travesty for people to think that they could check off a box on paid leave and then leave the majority of American people behind.”

Bravo believes the insertion of the cut was a last-ditch attempt at making the bill seem good for working families and not just for the wealthy: “If politicians are under the gun for a tax bill that clearly is giving huge tax breaks to the most powerful and the wealthiest and not doing enough for small businesses, families, and everyday Americans, they have to include something that makes them look better, and there are politicians looking for window dressings, because they know paid leave is popular, and this tax bill is not popular overall.”

Shabo, however, saw the cut as a good sign for the direction of the national conversation on paid leave: “The fact that this issue is being addressed in Republican written legislation is certainly a milestone in the recognition that America needs to solve its paid leave crisis.” America is the only developed country without even national paid maternity leave guaranteed. Shabo’s organization, the National Partnership for Women & Families, drafted and fought to pass the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, which guarantees unpaid leave to many American workers, and it is excited about the real conversations gaining traction on paid leave policies across party lines.

According to both Shabo and Bravo, lawmakers should use the national interest in paid leave as a catalyst to revisit the research on paid leave and look to states that have passed bills with bipartisan support as evidence this could work.

“States are paving the way to a national solution,” Bravo remarks. Washington state recently passed a comprehensive bipartisan paid family leave policy and brought multiple community stakeholders together to pass one of the most generous paid family leave bills in the United States. People employed in Washington are guaranteed 12 weeks of paid leave funded through weekly paycheck contributions by both the employer and employee.

Shabo thinks paid leave legislation at the federal level still stands a chance: “If people could take off their ideological hats, comprehensive and inclusive paid family leave should absolutely be a reality.”

Nov. 17 2017 10:29 AM

Squeezed by Family and Financial Pressures, Young Latinas Struggle to Stay in School

Every afternoon except Tuesday, 17-year-old Ariadna Arredondo travels from Aurora Central High School to Tacos Acapulco to spend seven hours cooking and running the cash register. On Saturdays and Sundays, she puts in 12-hour shifts.

Clocking 52 hours a week at $9.50 an hour to supplement her mom’s housecleaning income left Arredondo little time for homework throughout her high school years. And it showed. Her grades fell and she almost failed to graduate—just like 52 percent of her classmates. Yet just six weeks after she enrolled in a program that helps children who live in poverty remain in school, Arredondo is giddy with the thought that she will soon don a cap and gown.


“I’m so excited to graduate and to walk across that stage,” said the senior, who lives in a suburb of Denver. “If it wasn’t for this program, I would be ditching. Now, I want to go to college to be a psychologist.”

Ariadna Arredondo
Ariadna Arredondo.

Matthew Mitchell

Offered by the nonprofit Communities in Schools in conjunction with Aurora Public Schools, the first-year program is preparing to help 60 more kids like Arredondo. Many of them are Latinas struggling to juggle schoolwork, child care, and household and work responsibilities. Aurora’s CIS effort, held in modular classrooms on the high school campus, allows kids to structure their own schedule through independent study with teachers available into the evenings for questions.

CIS’ relationship-based approach is one of several community-oriented interventions credited in part with slashing the percentage of Hispanic females in the U.S. who drop out of high school by two-thirds, from 24 percent in 2000 to 8.4 percent in 2015, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Even so, the high school dropout rate among female Hispanics is higher than that of their white, black, and male peers, in part due to cultural expectations that Latinas will help their parents with child care and housekeeping, often at the expense of their education, said Sylvia Martínez, associate professor in educational leadership and policy and Latino studies at Indiana University–Bloomington and co-author of Barriers to Educational Opportunities for Hispanics in the United States. Programs like CIS are attempting to help resolve this in part by acknowledging these pressures.

Another is the Mother-Daughter Program at the University of Texas at El Paso, which has engaged 9,000 girls and their moms and inspired similar efforts in schools from San Diego to Wisconsin. The implementation of a Mexican American studies curriculum in Tucson, Arizona increased grades and graduation rates, as did work by community colleges in Miami high schools to ensure high-risk Latinas understood college was within their reach.

The changing demographics of the disparate Latino population, with a rising share born in the U.S. and a growing understanding among parents that education is essential to compete for jobs, are also responsible for the unprecedented increase in graduation rates among Latinas, said Martínez.

“Latinas’ rate of acculturation outpaces their parents’ rate of acculturation,” Martínez added. “They tend to have a lot of conflict with respect to family issues and gaining independence, while white teens tend to have conflict with peer relationships.”

This family centered culture can overlook the fact that today’s students must assimilate into a high school system that expects them to put their studies first. Unpaid care work overshadows the financial future for America’s fastest-growing female minority population, who often grow up to manage the money in their households and earn only 54 cents for every dollar collected by white men.

Each school year, the Mother-Daughter Program shifts gender dynamics in Hispanic households by working with students and their parents to understand the importance of a high school and a college education, said Josefina Tinajero, dean of the college of education at UT–El Paso and the program’s director. Tinajero founded the program in 1986 with four other women after they realized that very few Hispanic girls in their region went on to attend college. That’s not the case today. Program participants get pregnant as teens less often and are more likely to graduate at the top of their class, Tinajero said.

“I was at the football game the other day,” she added. “And I met this grandmother who said her two granddaughters were in the program and both went to college.”

The program works with school districts in the El Paso region who select 300 sixth-grade girls a year who would be among the first in their families to graduate from college. These students and their mothers attend five events at the university throughout the school year, including touring the nursing and engineering programs as well as other schools, talking with college recruiters, attending a career day where professionals talk about their jobs, and participating in community service projects.

Tinajero and her staff also provide parents with information about scholarships and financial aid and talk about what a college degree means in terms of career advancement and income. The curriculum has proved so powerful that mothers often also choose to go to college.

The program changed Sylvia Luna and her daughter’s life. Luna enrolled in community college afterward, got a human resources degree, and went on to get a master’s degree in business. After working as a federal grant coordinator at UTEP, Luna retired and now works part-time at a charter school. Luna said the program showed her she could pursue her dream to become a grant coordinator by getting a college education without owing thousands of dollars of debt.

“Dr. Tinajero was always very conscious of saying it doesn’t take money to get an education,” said Luna, whose daughter is now a school administrator. “I wouldn’t have been able to help other people get an education if I didn’t get one myself.”

In Aurora, Colorado, Melissa Ramirez, a soft-spoken 17-year-old who cares for her two younger brothers and cooks and cleans every day after school, said the CIS program will allow her to become the first in her family to graduate from high school. She wants to go to college to study to be a nurse.

“Last year I started falling behind and I started ditching—I hated it,” Ramirez said. “In this program if you’re failing they won’t make you feel bad about it—they will help you out. My parents still don’t believe I’m going to graduate. But I am.”

Nov. 16 2017 10:19 AM

How Mothers Get Caught in an Unemployment–Child Care Cycle

In New York, an unemployed mother left her two children in the car, air conditioning on, while she went in LaGuardia Airport for a job interview. The children were fine but told the cop who discovered them they didn’t know where their mom was. Local authorities stepped in, and the mug shot of the mother made its way across the country.

But what other options did Nidia Joseph-Delgado have? For a mom looking for work without childcare options, the obstacles are steep.


Caitlin Mahoney knows the frustration that comes from not being able to find work. She worked as a theater, English, and special education teacher before her daughter was born and intended to go back to work part time afterward. But she hasn’t been able to find a teaching position that will pay her enough to cover the cost of child care.

“The first year I stayed home I was totally happy,” she said, “but I have student loans and I started feeling uncomfortable that I wasn’t contributing. It would make me feel better to put my income in our Excel spreadsheet, [and] help it go to green.” She hopes to apply to teaching positions once again in the spring, when schools ramp up their hiring processes. In the meantime, she’s watching a friend’s baby to bring in at least a little bit of income to help with her feelings of restlessness. In a way, she’s become a stay-at-home mom and a part-time child care provider by accident. The intensity of child care demands for women with young children can be one of the greatest motivators for women to want to get back to a professional life and one of the reasons doing so can be difficult.

Elana Konstant, a career coach and consultant in Brooklyn, works with stay-at-home moms like Mahoney who want to transition back to work. She’s found that, for many stay-at-home moms, how they left the workforce, under what conditions, and how long they’ve been away affect their “professional self-esteem.” On top of the usual stresses of not having a job while needing one, being a mother to a young child presents an array of dilemmas, both practical and emotional.

“I call it ‘reclaiming your professional mojo,’ ” Konstant said. “Being a stay-at-home mom is rewarding, and so many do it, but there are others who expect to go back and wonder if they will be hirable again, or if their experience from before [having kids] is still valid.” And for many women, their work prospects are tied to their identity, making the job search process extremely fraught.

The number of moms staying home with kids because they cannot find a job has risen dramatically in recent years (six times as many in 2012 as compared with 2000). And while these mothers make up a minority of the moms who are staying home with kids, they are significantly more likely to be unhappy with their situation, which serves neither them nor their kids in the long run.

In an economy rife with long-term unemployment and skyrocketing child care costs, where women sometimes take breaks to raise young children, a balance of professional and family fulfillment can be tough to attain. The job search, as women like Mahoney know, can take months, even years. The average person looking for work spends 26 weeks unemployed, which doesn’t include those people who have dropped out of the job search. If you’re taking care of a young kid at the same time, this search can be even harder.

The unemployment rate for mothers with children less than 3 years old was 5.6 percent in 2016, slightly higher than the national average. These are mothers who are actively seeking work and cannot find employment, who have children at the ages in which child care is the most expensive. One study estimated that women lost between 4 and 10 percent of their earnings for every child they had, with women who worked in more affluent, competitive jobs losing more than those in lower-skilled positions. Women’s long gaps in their résumés for having and rearing kids significantly lower their lifetime earning potential.

Konstant said that concerns about child care are top of the list for moms who want to return to work—they worry not only about who will watch the kids once a job offer materializes, but also who will watch the kids while they go on interviews or even spend time online searching through job postings. She recommends that stay-at-home moms begin the job search process by reaching out to friends to let them know they’re looking, explore drop-in options at child care centers, or offer to swap child care duties with another family—“You take their kid two days a week. They take your kid two days a week. It’s hard to do that with a young child with you.” This requires all kinds of creativity. Even child care centers at gyms can be valuable, Konstant says, since a mom can leave her kids for a few hours, then go upstairs and job search online instead of working out.

Mothers cannot focus on finding a new job unless they have access to very affordable child care. “We need a plan in place for [people who go on unemployment] to have child care,” said Sarah Damaske, an associate professor of labor and employment relations and sociology at Penn State University “You don’t want people plunged too far into poverty that it’s a shock to the family, and prevents them from looking for work,” Damaske said.

Damaske’s research examined the physical and mental well-being of women at age 40 and found that job loss took a toll. As compared with women who opted for staying home with kids or those who worked consistently, the women who’d lost jobs fared worst both physically and mentally.

Konstant found that it comes down to a psychological barrier for many women: wondering if they’re hirable. “When I redo their résumé, it’s incredibly empowering for them,” she said. She’s created an online course geared toward women making the job shifts, Leaping Back. “That is why I created the course, [to] help people step back into themselves and their professional identity.”

Women may have made strides in most aspects of employment (and there are some fields where women’s employment far outpaces men), but we’re still falling short when it comes to making a successful work-life balance when relegated to the outskirts of the labor market. For women, mothers especially, who’ve felt that unexpected and unforgiving shove toward unemployment, that revolving door takes a fair amount of energy to push back open.

Nov. 15 2017 12:59 PM

It Isn’t in Your Head. America’s Care Crisis Is Getting Worse.

With the rising cost of child care, an absence of available caretakers for our rapidly aging population, and many Americans trying to face these problems with long working hours, sparse benefits, and little flexibility, the care economy is at once crucial to the future U.S. population and more precarious than ever. In a new essay out Wednesday, feminist scholar Nancy Fraser, a professor of politics and philosophy at the New School for Social Research, argues that increasingly common calls for “work-life balance” fall short of answering the urgency of the ongoing care crisis in the United States. I asked her to explain what’s behind our collective feeling of being overstretched at work and at home and how it is things got this bad in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.


Haley Swenson: What do people mean when they talk about a “care crisis”?


Nancy Fraser: Essentially, the popular understanding of this is the time crunch: the fact that households have to contribute many more hours to paid work to make ends meet and don’t have secure, well-paying jobs to the degree they used to in the past. So you’ve got all these jobs in the gig economy and lots of people running around working more than one job, and as a result, there’s the whole question of what happens on the homefront.

We have high-powered professional women in very demanding careers who are well-paid but who are also putting in very long hours. They have the wherewithal to hire out care work. For those who really don’t have the wherewithal to pay for the care that they might have otherwise provided for themselves and their families if they had more time, they are forced to make all kinds of ad hoc arrangements. You know, bartering care: “You take my kids today; I’ll take your son tomorrow.” People experience it as a personal problem, but it’s actually a structural, societywide problem due in part to changes in the structure of work and the structure of compensation.

What kicked off the 2007–2008 financial crisis was the housing market. You know it’s part of the American dream to own your own house. That people have a safe place to raise families is absolutely fundamental to care. With subprime loans we saw 10 million foreclosures. 10 million. So that was the triggering effect of the 2008 financial crisis.

And then you add in the fact there that there are all these fiscal pressures to cut public programming and public forms of support—you have lots of schools that have cut after-school programs. That’s the kind of thing that goes first.

So when did when did the current care crisis start? Hasn’t it always been this way?

Under the New Deal, there was something close to a solution. The idea was that a working man should be paid a wage that was sufficient to support the whole family so that the wife wouldn’t have to work in a full-time demanding job. And this was a period where, not just for the upper class but even for the working classes, you had something like a male breadwinner/female homemaker model. That really meant that you didn’t have the kind of severity of the time pressures and the sacrifice of the care stuff. However, this is not a golden age that we want to try to return to. Black Americans never had this kind of wage structure. Black American women always did wage work in much greater proportions than white women. And even women who benefited most from the family wage system were still dependent on men.

So we got a critique of the family wage from second-wave feminism that converged with the unraveling of the New Deal and its replacement with a financially dominated form of capitalism, along with the relocation of manufacturing away from the U.S. The family wage was being undone by these changes in economic organization at the same time we were criticizing it for completely different reasons. This started and exacerbated the care crisis.

How do we make sure that feminist responses today are actually getting at the heart of this care problem?

We’re past the point where feminism can sort of deal with women’s issues as if they were separate from and isolated from the macro picture of what’s happening in society.

It’s not like the wealthier women are not victims of sexism, but with respect to the care crisis, they have a strategy for dealing with that that involves outsourcing their care to low-wage or precarious workers, usually women of color or immigrants. So, if you don’t look at the big picture, you end up with a feminism whose principal beneficiaries can only be not quite the top 1 percent of women, but maybe the 10 percent. And the overwhelming majority of women are not cracking any glass ceilings. They’re in the basement.

When you look at the whole political landscape, is there a movement, a particular policy idea, anything, that you’re feeling hopeful can fix our care crisis?

Well, the editor of Social Reproduction Theorythe volume I have an essay in—Tithi Bhattacharya, and other contributors have organized on the idea of the “feminism for the 99 percent,” the idea that feminism should start with the whole of working women, the needs of domestic workers, women working in agriculture, immigrant women. Let’s treat their situations as the norm and see what kind of feminism develops.

That’s the hopeful idea. Whether it gets traction depends on lots of other things. I think we have a political crisis in the U.S.—a crisis of legitimacy where all sorts of people are rejecting the established political elites and parties. So you get this Trump business on one side, and you have the Sanders phenomenon on the Democratic side. And this is happening all over the world; it’s not just true in United States. I think that the prospect of feminism for the 99 percent depends on the larger landscape, and I think we should be working in tandem with left-wing populist progressives.

Nov. 14 2017 10:00 AM

In an Industry Where Abuse Is Hidden, Domestic Workers Set Sights on Federal Protections

For 20 years, Allison Julien commuted an hour across Brooklyn, New York, every morning to arrive at work by 8 a.m. In the early 1990s, her office was someone else’s house, where she cared for a family’s two toddlers. She immigrated from Barbados and came to the United States young and undocumented with few options for work. She got involved in domestic work through her family and friends working in the industry. “I didn’t choose my profession; my profession chose me,” Julien says.

Julien also didn’t choose to catch the flu from the toddlers. In order to heal herself, she needed to take a Thursday and Friday off work. Upset at her request, her employer raised Julien’s status as an undocumented immigrant. The implication was a threat to turn her in to authorities if she didn’t come to work, a common tactic used against vulnerable undocumented workers. Nevertheless, she continued as their nanny. “That for me was really a point of knowing that something more needed to be done. As an undocumented person who was providing the most important care for this couple’s children, I wasn’t even able to take time off after catching the flu from the kids I was caring for,” Julien says.


Had this happened today, Julien would’ve been able to claim her right to three paid days of rest without any backlash. That’s because of the rights guaranteed to her by the New York Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, which was the first of its kind to pass in 2010 thanks to a campaign by the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA). Given the intimacy of their jobs, domestic workers are especially subject to exploitation by their employers. According to a 2012* NDWA survey, “The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work,” 36 percent of nannies contracted an illness while at work in the prior 12 months, and most don’t have access to sick days or rest time. Findings also show that 85 percent of undocumented domestic workers who encountered problems with their working conditions in the prior 12 months did not speak up because they feared their immigration status would be used against them like it was in Julien’s case. Moreover, their wages are stagnant despite the fact that the care economy is one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy.

The NDWA, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary Tuesday, connects domestic workers together in an organization as close to a union as is possible in an industry where the usual rules don’t apply. It counts more than 20,000 individual members, including housekeepers, nannies, and caregivers for the elderly. In just 10 years, it has been able to provide them with rights like a minimum wage, job protection, sick days, rest time, and access to health care in eight states across the country.

In the isolating, private world of domestic work, where each worker is often left to her own devices if she encounters problems, there is no board of directors or human resources department to slap an abusive or disrespectful employer on the wrist.

Across the country in San Francisco, Enma Delgado ran into these problems and others. Delgado was born in El Salvador, and she crossed three borders to make it to the U.S. in 2003. She left three kids behind in El Salvador in order to provide for them with domestic work available in the U.S. In the interview for her first job as a nanny, her employers showed little appreciation of the job she was about to take. “You won’t have to do much work,” her future employers said. “You only have to carry them and give them a bath.” This initial misunderstanding of what it meant to be a nanny translated into low pay and disrespect.

Regardless of these attitudes about the nature of domestic work, and despite low pay, domestic workers describe the work as both physically and emotionally taxing. Maria Reyes, a 71-year-old Mexican immigrant, domestic worker, and veteran activist, says her work has always been emotional. “Thinking about a typical day in caring for a person or cleaning a home, I’ve always done this work with a lot of love. When I cared for an older person I did it with love and compassion, like my mom had cared for me.”

Julien, Delgado, and Reyes brought these experiences to the National Domestic Workers Alliance, where they try to raise general awareness of their job conditions and fight for better legal protections at the same time. The NDWA was founded in 2007 at the first U.S. Social Forum in Atlanta. Atlanta was the birthplace of domestic-worker organizing and home to the movement’s matriarch, Dorothy Bolden. Bolden founded the National Domestic Worker’s Union of America in 1968, and her legacy lives on today in each of the 60-plus organizations affiliated with the NDWA.

Historically, workplace protections for domestic workers have been sparse. For one, they were excluded from basic protections established by the Fair Labor Standards Act. During the civil rights movement, Bolden became a sounding board for these workers, most of whom, at the time, were black. Domestic work was largely seen as black women’s work until recently, when labor changes such as greater access to civil service jobs for black women led many black women out of domestic work and increased the demand for foreign-born domestic workers. Today, immigrant women of all races have filled these posts, but Bolden’s legacy remains in NDWA’s We Dream in Black campaign, which is specifically designed to amplify the voices of black female domestic workers. Julien now spearheads this campaign.

The passage of the first Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in New York in 2010 was only the beginning of the contemporary domestic workers movement launched through the formation of NDWA. Seven years and seven states later, NDWA bills of rights are gaining momentum. A part of their strategy has been educating lawmakers about domestic work to gain recognition. Delgado says NDWA has made itself known to legislators in California: “Now when they see the sea of red T-shirts come in, they know exactly who we are.” Since these laws passed, domestic workers like Delgado are empowered to enter in conversations with employers about their working conditions, because they’ve been armed with their rights. “Even if the laws exist on the books, if we don’t demand that they be enforced then it’s like they don’t exist at all,” Delgado said.

In certain respects, these bills are more progressive than existing U.S. labor laws protecting other kinds of workers. Marzena Zukowska, NDWA earned media strategist, points out, “One thing that’s quite noticeable is that the bills of rights in Illinois, New York, and California have a freedom from sexual harassment clause, which is important, because at the federal level many workers get excluded from sexual harassment claims because there’s a minimum number of employees that a workplace has to have.” That minimum number is 15 employees. The NDWA helps domestic workers circumvent these loopholes within existing labor laws.

Delgado, Reyes, and Julien all worked tirelessly as volunteer organizers to pass these bills of rights, and they’re hoping that can translate to an all-encompassing federal bill. Reyes says, “It’s a huge achievement that the NDWA passed the bills of rights in eight states, but the real dream is to do it in every state at the national level.” That seems like a pipe dream given our current administration’s agenda and especially their hostility to undocumented workers, who make up a huge portion of domestic workers today.

The biggest barrier domestic workers face today is fear. Undocumented domestic workers are afraid to ask for minimum wage or overtime pay, and some are even afraid to leave their employers’ homes for fear of detainment or deportation. Julien says, “Our organization is tied into the lives of immigrants, mainly immigrant women, who are at the margins of everything that’s coming down the pipeline of this new administration.” The Trump administration leaves even the most experienced and seasoned NDWA organizers asking, “What next?”

But on Tuesday, they’re celebrating their anniversary and the progress they’ve made nonetheless. Julien says, “We build this community so that when the ‘what next’ comes down the pipeline there’s a home for them to be a part of. We already know that these workers are resilient. Their resilience shapes the way that we change laws in this country.”

*Correction, Nov. 14, 2017: This post originally stated that the NDWA survey, "The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work," was from 2016. The survey is actually from 2012.

Nov. 13 2017 10:00 AM

Barbara Ehrenreich: Worker Abuse Is Rampant, and Sexual Harassment Is Just the Start

Barbara Ehrenreich has written extensively about the impossibility of getting by with low-wage work in the U.S. and the everyday indignities workers in the U.S. face on the job. In her best-selling book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Ehrenreich wrote about her yearlong experience of going undercover as a low-wage worker. In a follow-up, Ehrenreich explored the world of middle-class white-collar jobs and the insecurity and humiliation of the jobs available to workers who did everything they were supposed to do to live the American dream. She’s also written about the growing inequality between rich and poor in This Land Is Their Land and the false promises of “positive thinking” in Bright-Sided. Ehrenreich is the founder of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, which promotes journalism about inequality in the United States.

Last week, Ehrenreich chimed in on the ongoing revelations of sexual harassment in the entertainment industry with a tweet:


I asked her to expound on the conversation she wishes we were having and the cases not being covered. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.

Haley Swenson: Did you have a particular case in mind that wasn’t being covered when you wrote your tweet?

Barbara Ehrenreich: Well, one case that comes to mind was the allegations against Dominique Strauss Kahn made by a hotel housekeeper. But I was also thinking about the numbers found by the hotel housekeepers union in Chicago, Unite Here. They found a shocking number, almost 60 percent of hotel housekeepers, reports being sexually harassed on the job. They go up to somebody’s room and there’s no one else there, and some guy tries something or is there with no clothes on while they try to do their jobs. This is routine.

And the other big category of workers we should talk about are waitresses. A waitress has to be prepared basically all the time to hear remarks on her body. And I have experience with that. I worked as a housekeeper for [Nickel and Dimed] and earned $6/hour. But I also worked as a waitress for the book, and I was a waitress when I was in my late teens. I was much prettier then—though I’m not sure what that has to do with it. It happened all the time. The worst thing is a pat on the butt. And waitresses talk to each other—we’ll say, “Hey, watch out for that one,” but it’s thought of as just a part of the job. It’s like, “Well, do you want a tip?”

The other thing we need to start talking about are just everyday instances of harassment that don’t meet the standard of sexual harassment that happen to people in their jobs. I wrote about this case in my book This Land is Their Land, where a sales company would motivate their employees by spanking both men and women who didn’t meet their quotas. They’d stand them up at the front of a room and use a giant ruler. And it was brought to court by a woman, but it was decided this wasn’t sexual harassment because it was happening to both men and women.

There was another employer I wrote about in Bright-Sided that was actually waterboarding employees who didn’t perform well. As part of a motivational exercise, a salesman was held down and had water poured down in his mouth and nose. You know, they can do pretty much what they want to you, and if you want the job, you just shut up.

I experienced other kinds of harassment when I was working on Nickel and Dimed, which were not sexual but were damn irritating and painful. When I was working as a waitress, my supervisor made me clean the whole floor of the restaurant, which was quite large, with a broom that was very short, like the notorious short hoe used by agricultural workers. So I was forced to do this whole job bent over too much. This left my back in pain. And then there was a supervisor who was mad at me because I was too friendly with the dishwasher, who was a Czech immigrant—I was helping him learn English. And so her punishment for me was I had to stay after work and mix all the blue cheese salad dressing and refill ketchup bottles for the next day. My shift was over, so I wasn’t being paid. I couldn’t go home. It was like I was being kept after school.

I mean, I’ve written about this. Stuff like this is basically old news. So with the issue of harassment—race-based harassment, harassment like this—sexual harassment is part of a larger pattern in the abuse of working people.

I have to imagine this has only gotten worse since the 2008 financial crisis since everyone is worried about losing their jobs?

Oh, yeah. I think you’re right.

So why do you think that these stories about celebrities are getting so much attention? Why is there so much interest in talking about this with celebrities and not these other routine, everyday cases people face?

Well, I think you know. If you're in the journalism business, you know that celebrities sell. You watch all these celebrity women come forward in the Harvey Weinstein case kind of glamorize the whole issue.

That’s something that could run in People magazine or in Us. That's sensational. The waitress or the hotel housekeeper or anybody who is a low-paid worker and isn’t being well–taken care of by her employer are the more quotidian examples.

But isn’t there a chance that the attention these celebrity cases are getting could, I hate to use the phrase, but, could have a “trickle-down effect?” Maybe the new conversation on celebrities could change the environment for women all over?

Sure. Yeah, of course. But I think the time has come to make that shift to the structures or nothing will ever happen. Celebrities: I’m sure there’s more to come. But it’s time to shift and say that there are all these other cases out there, and these are things that happen to your sister, or your daughter, or your wife at work. It’s routine.

So one of the conversations taking place is that there’s something about the structure of these industries—especially Hollywood and politics—that makes it really easy for men to prey on women. What kinds of things should we think about when it comes to hotel housekeepers or waitresses that are structurally making it hard to stop sexual harassment in those contexts?

The problem is these are women who often work alone and they have no backup. So, we need a kind of feminist movement to change this and give them safe places to stand up and talk about these conditions. A good model of this is the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

Domestic workers are also very vulnerable. There’s a case of taking women who are very often working by themselves, working in people’s homes with nobody around to turn to or witness what’s going on, and organizing them together. At this time we have to use the momentum from the celebrity cases to talk to the women showing up to work with a mop and a vacuum cleaner and facing these much more routine problems.

It seems the law is really not working to solve these problems. So what is the solution to these everyday kinds of harassment?

Well, the unions. Absolutely. Most people have no rights whatsoever in their workplace. You have a little bit more power with our current unions, but you know, we need stronger unions. We need it to be that if it happens, you report it to your lovely shop steward and they immediately come in and confront the employer about it. This is exactly why I’m for strong unions.

Nov. 10 2017 11:06 AM

Chosen Family Should Be Included in Paid Leave Policy. We Already Know It Could Work.

When my partner’s best friend had eye surgery, he was in a bind: He couldn’t get home to recover by himself, and his family lives on the other side of the country. Luckily, my partner is self-employed and was able to take some time to be with his friend when he needed him. But what if my partner had needed to request time off from work to care for his friend? He’d likely be at the mercy of his employer.

At some point in our lives, nearly all of us will need to care for a loved one. But in the United States, whether you have the time and financial support for caregiving too often depends on whether you happen to work for a company that offers paid sick days or paid family and medical leave. It likely also depends on whether lawmakers or your human resources department decide your loved one counts as "family."


Caregiving doesn't always coincide with the kinds of family relationships that have historically been recognized by U.S. laws. One recent study found that approximately one-third of people in the United States, and more than 4 in 10 LGBTQ individuals and individuals with disabilities, had taken time away from work to care for a so-called chosen family member. While discussions of chosen family often focus on queer communities, many of whom have long relied on support networks outside their legal or “blood” family, "chosen family" refers to any person with whom you have a close relationship that isn't typically recognized in the law, such as a longtime neighbor who was like a mother to you or a close friend you served alongside during a tour of duty. And the need for policymakers to recognize chosen family is only likely to increase, given the growing need for elder caregiving and the shortage of direct kin to do it.

To help ensure that people can care for chosen family, paid leave and other caregiving policies need inclusive definitions of who can access time off and other support for caregiving. Yet policymakers also have to balance the need for inclusivity with the political reality that the more people a program covers, the more likely lawmakers are to have concerns about how much it costs. The White House’s most recent proposal would limit paid leave to new parents, which would exclude chosen family and many forms of caregiving. So how do we translate the complexity of family and caregiving relationships into the cold, hard language of a labor law—and how do we frame legislation so that it has a chance of passing?

The good news is that it can be done. Three policies in effect right now show the innovative approaches policymakers have been taking to help ensure that people can provide care to members of their chosen family. And these inclusive policies aren’t only coming from blue states and cities.

1. Paid Sick Day Laws Recognize “Equivalent of a Family Relationship”

Policies designed to support members of the military and veterans have been at the vanguard of U.S. social policy since the Civil War. One of the current standards for an inclusive definition of family originated in Vietnam War–era regulations permitting federal employees to take funeral leave for relatives who were killed in combat, including those related by "blood or affinity whose close association with the employee is the equivalent of a family relationship."

Much like the term chosen family, this language legitimates close nonfamily relationships by comparing them to relationships by "blood." Similar language is now being used in paid sick days laws in Arizona; St. Paul, Minnesota; Los Angeles; Chicago and Cook County, Illinois; and San Francisco covers leave for a “designated person.” These laws provide working people in the jurisdictions a job-protected right to earn and use paid sick days to care for chosen family.

2. Veterans Affairs Supports Anyone Providing Personal Care to a Post-9/11 Vet

Programs for veterans and military families continue to be a source of innovation in family policy today. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers provides training, respite services, a monthly stipend, and other support to caregivers for veterans wounded in post-9/11 conflicts. Eligibility depends on the veteran's health status (a serious injury incurred or aggravated in the line of duty on or after Sept. 11, 2001), the level of assistance provided by the military service member’s caregiver, and either a family or residency relationship.

To be recognized as a "family caregiver," a person must either be "a member of the family of the veteran" (the law specifically names parent, spouse, child, stepfamily member, or extended family member) or an individual who "lives with the veteran but is not a member of the family of the veteran," and someone "who provides personal care services to the veteran."

Allowing nonfamily caregivers to be eligible for support leaves an opening for the approximately one-quarter of post-9/11 military caregivers who are not related to the veteran. Interestingly, this definition doesn't even require the caregiver to have a "familylike" relationship to the veteran. This innovative program is making a difference for veterans, and a proposal to expand coverage to pre-9/11 veterans even has bipartisan support in Congress.

3. In Hawaii’s Kapuna Care, “Friendship” Is Kinship

Earlier this year, Hawaii enacted a first-in-the-nation elder care program, "Kapuna Care," which provides a daily stipend to caregivers for older adults. Hawaii isn't new to the "innovative family policy" game either: In 1997, it became the first jurisdiction in North America to offer legal protections, including hospital visitation rights, to people unable to marry—such as siblings or other relations, as well as same-sex couples.

Kapuna Care defines eligibility around the health status of the care recipient and the level of assistance provided by the caregiver, and requires the caregiver to have a "personal relationship" to the care recipient. The law is remarkable in that it specifies "friend" as an eligible relationship.

As we continue to push for paid family and medical leave, paid sick days and other supportive caregiving policies, policymakers need to be pushed to consider policies like these that are already working as models for how to support diverse families and caregiving relationships. Designing policies with room for the complex ways Americans define family isn’t quite the hurdle it might seem.

Nov. 9 2017 10:32 AM

The STEM Paradox: Why Are Muslim-Majority Countries Producing So Many Female Engineers?

In March, inside a small room at Tunisia’s National Engineering School of Tunis, six women listened, eyes wet, as one played an old song on her iPhone. The Arabic tune was a lullaby from a popular 1950s TV show that mothers had sung to their baby girls. The lyrics envision a future in which the little girl starts school and earns excellent grades: “And I will say ‘My girl has grown up, she will be an engineer’/ Oh people, oh people! I love her!/ She’s her mother’s lovely girl.”

For the Tunisian women—faculty members at the school—the song was a reminder of their childhoods. For the Americans, it was a reminder that they were in the right place. They had come to dig into an emergent and counterintuitive pattern of data: There are, in many cases, a larger proportion of women studying and pursuing STEM careers inside developing, Muslim-majority countries than in the U.S.—and in some countries, those numbers are rising further.


For Americans, the vision of a 1950s mother crooning such a lullaby to her daughter probably sounds anomalous. Back then, most women were neither encouraged nor permitted to work in a masculine career like engineering. And today, they are still underrepresented in STEM careers overall and in engineering specifically: Only 18.4 percent of bachelor’s degrees in engineering go to women, and women make up between 8 and 34 percent of the engineering workforce, depending on the subfield. A couple of years ago the researchers began to wonder: What could Americans learn about our approach to this enduring disparity by looking outside of our borders?

“The West has invested billions of dollars to address the issue of gender inequality in engineering and computing and has basically failed,” explains Washington State University adjunct associate engineering professor Ashley Ater Kranov, the investigator who came up with the initial research. “I started thinking maybe we’re asking the wrong questions—questions that won’t help us solve the problem.”

Ater Kranov, along with Jennifer DeBoer, an assistant professor of engineering education at Purdue University, recently came back from conducting research in Tunisia, Malaysia, and Jordan, all countries that they chose to study based on counterintuitive research that two other academics, Maria Charles and Karen Bradley, published in 2009 and then in a subsequent article in 2011. Charles and Bradley, professors at the University of California at Santa Barbara and Western Washington University, respectively, had found that the STEM gender gap was smaller in countries like Iran, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, and Oman than in the U.S.—in other words, men still made up the majority of STEM graduates overall, but there were more women by comparison. They even found a reverse gender gap in those same nations when it came to certain STEM measurements—for instance, women in Iran, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Uzbekistan earned more than 50 percent of the total number of science degrees. On the flip side, the Netherlands was the weakest country for women’s representation in science. A similar pattern held true for engineering: While the most male-dominated engineering programs were in developed countries like Japan, Switzerland, Germany, and the U.S., Indonesia boasted 48 percent female engineers.

Charles and other academic partners continued the research by asking eighth-graders around the world about their career aspirations. Once again, they found the same pattern: The more developed and affluent the country, the fewer female students said they wanted jobs in STEM when they grew up and that they liked math and science. This meant that the STEM gender gap contrast couldn’t be fully explained by economic decision-making—women (rationally) choosing more lucrative career paths in financially unstable environments. Separate from economic concerns, career preferences, too, were also divided along gender lines.

This research left Charles, and later Ater Kranov and DeBoer, scratching their heads. When it came to some of the more basic indicators of gender equality—women’s political participation, access to education and economic opportunities, and existence of overtly discriminatory laws or policies—women were for the most part faring better in the U.S. than in some of these developing nations.

So what were we missing, exactly?

Though Charles and Bradley tried to answer that big question raised by their research, their theory was limited by the data: They had quantitative research but no qualitative interviews. Now, DeBoer, Ater Kranov, and other researchers intend to interrogate the original theory by holding interviews and focus groups like the one in Tunisia. To help them analyze their data, they’ll use Charles and Bradley’s original hypothesis: that encouraging young women to “follow their passion” can lead to a reliance on gender stereotypes. How? Imagine a 10-year-old kid who’s told to “follow her passion” in order to figure out her career path. Though it’d be nice to think that she will find this passion by looking deep into her soul, she’s far more likely to settle on a path by observing what people who look like her do, by thinking about what she’s good at, and by considering what’s expected of her as a girl.

“In Western industrialized countries, we believe that women and men are innately and fundamentally different and tend to celebrate those differences,” DeBoer explains. Another contributing factor is the tendency to “assign gendered labels to different fields. In other words, we see engineering as a man’s work and a caregiving field like nursing as a woman’s work.”

In the imaginations of citizens of developed countries, “curricular and career choices become more than practical economic decisions … they also represent acts of identity construction and self-affirmation,” wrote Charles in Contexts magazine in 2011. But as Charles puts it, “occupational aspirations are social products, not intrinsic properties of individuals.”

In the U.S., that claim could almost be seen as heretical. Here, individualism and individual choice are the precious gems in the crown of American values. “The idea that our sense of self could be formed by something that’s outside of our control is countercultural and threatening,” says Erin Cech, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan who worked with Charles on the paper assessing the career aspirations of eighth-graders.

And yet the theory that career aspirations are at least partly socially constructed is corroborated by research into aspirational variation around the world and over time. (Women, don’t forget, were the first computer programmers in the 1960s and ’70s and were overrepresented among physics, astronomy, chemistry, and other science courses in 19th-century American schools.) But the more a career path is associated with one’s identity, as it is in many developed nations, the more it can also be tied in with existing gender stereotypes.

Or so the theory goes. For her part, Charles acknowledges that “the question of how societal affluence might promote gendered career aspirations remains open.”

The truth is that occupational patterns result from a complex interplay of both culture and biology—nature and nurture. Except for when they’re more straightforward. For instance, in Tunisia and Jordan, all students take a national exam after high school regardless of socio-economic status, and depending on their scores, they are funneled into particular career tracks. “The majority of women didn’t choose their professions; it was the scores that chose for them,” Ater Kranov explains. Top scorers are admitted to medical school, second-tier scorers are admitted to engineering schools, and third-tier are law students.

“A large percentage of girls aren’t driven by passion for engineering but by performance,” says Raja Ghozi, a Tunisian engineering professor at the National Engineering School of Tunis who has also studied in the U.S. Though Tunisian women can change their field of study to the humanities, they tend to stick with engineering because it’s something that’s been encouraged by their parents—often their fathers, Ghozi says—and because they know they’re more likely to find jobs in engineering in a country with a 15 percent unemployment rate. These women, she says, are taught to “complete the mission. Quitting or changing career direction for them is a failure, at least when they embark on their engineering education.” In many ways, that’s a virtue. But as a professor, Ghozi says she sees the dark side of this system in women who are burned out and unmotivated by the content of the work: “I think many of the girls could have been happier by allowing themselves to change careers, but the Tunisian engineering education system may not be that flexible.” (For what it’s worth, American society has its own flexibility problems: Elizabeth Garbee recently argued for eliminating the STEM pipeline metaphor in the U.S. because it perpetuates the idea that the only valuable scientists are the ones with Ph.D.s who have followed a restrictive educational path.)

Charles cites Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development research showing that limiting curricular choice in high school can result in more women in science and tech fields and a smaller influence of peers on aspiration. She acknowledges that this suggestion may strike some as “anti-democratic” but that those who are worried about undermining freedom of choice need to balance that concern against the possibility that girls’ and boys’ free choice isn’t really free at all but rather “constrained by taken-for-granted assumptions and cognitive biases about what they will like and what they are good at and by the social sanctions that they may anticipate should they elect to pursue gender-atypical educational and career paths.”

Though it will be months before DeBoer, Ater Kranov, and the rest of the team will be able to synthesize potential solutions from their research, there’s at least one emergent lesson for the U.S.: Passion for the field is important, but assuming that passion flows from biology or that it’s somehow innate ignores the ways in which culture and policy can reinforce girls’ STEM capabilities early on and encourage passion to develop.

We may think we’re rooting gender inequality out of our systems and institutions by targeting formal restrictions and overt discrimination, but it can still exist in covert ways. Often times, “equality is defined in formal procedural terms - as equal opportunities to realize preferences, which are understood to be properties of individuals” and therefore sacrosanct, Charles wrote me in an email. If a woman pursues a career as a teacher, she’s unlikely to see this choice as one of forced conformity to gender norms but rather think her aspirations reflect a unique mix of interest and ability. “This emotional buy-in is where gender segregation gets its staying power,” Charles says.

Though this may sound like a bleak assessment, it’s actually a freeing realization: Say you’ve always thought you were destined—or designed—for a particular career. That’s a powerful narrative and one that’s reinforced by the media we consume and the people we talk to about their supposed career trajectories. But this narrative can also be powerfully constraining—especially if you experience failure or crises of confidence, which most of us will or already do. If we let go of the idea that our preferences, aspirations, and capabilities are completely self-determined, perhaps we’ll truly experience a freedom of choice that has so far eluded us.

Nov. 8 2017 10:00 AM

Child Care Providers Want Degrees. We Have to Figure Out How to Pay for Them.

Out with friends in D.C. the other night, I heard one say to another, “Have you seen the city’s new regulations for child care? They are so crazy. I don’t need my kid’s day care providers to have degrees. I just want them to love and snuggle my kid.” I looked around the table: There we were, four white women with well-paying jobs and young children in public schools, child care centers, andnannies. Though I am the only one working in early childhood education, each of us has a B.A. and most of us have more. We pursued our degrees because it was expected or because we wanted to grow our knowledge and skills; because we wanted to be better at our jobs, or because our jobs required it; or because we wanted to increase our compensation, advance in our field, achieve better outcomes, and help support our families. Why didn’t we understand that child care providers might want advanced education in their field for these same reasons?

By the end of 2020, Washington, D.C., will require all lead educators to have earned an associate degree (child care center directors will need to earn a bachelor’s degree). While the policy is there to help kids, some early childhood educators are happy about what this means for them too. “Early childhood educators are hungry for opportunities to support the children they serve, and advance their careers,” says Sue Russell, executive director of the T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood National Center, which provides comprehensive higher education scholarships and support to educators around the country.


Some of those educators, who are currently in the field, told me about why they got or want a degree—and they said the same things my friends and I would. “I wanted to be the best possible teacher I could be,” said Donna. “I was limited in my opportunity to advance without it,” said Angela. Michelle wanted to “better understand child development.” Lesley “needed to be able to support myself and my daughter.” Kayley wanted a degree “to be better equipped to help my school, staff, and children.”

Yet the ambition of these educators isn’t always supported by their realities. Unlike my dinner companions, the women taking care of our children are often not white. Their first language is not necessarily English. Frequently failed by an educational system designed to help people like me succeed, they may experience daunting barriers in going back to school. Because our system underfunds early childhood education, they are often poor; because they are poor, they lack transportation options. And although they are child care providers, when they themselves have to be in class or working, they often lack child care. In addition to all of this, they suffer from a lack of respect—or, to be more precise, they suffer from being told they are respected, but so often shown, by word and deed, that they are not.

The parents at my dinner table love the people who care for and educate their children. They pay them, often as much as they can possibly afford. They appreciate them and support them; they care about their well-being; and they may ruefully note that they wouldn’t want to do their jobs. They often understand that an early childhood educator’s job is “difficult;” but by this they mean “tedious,” not “intellectually challenging.” And because of this, they do not yet believe that being an early childhood educator means having a complex demanding job that requires specialized skills, knowledge, and competencies that go beyond patiently sitting on the floor to work with the little ones.

Many Americans—including voters and politicians on both sides of the aisle—do recognize that high quality early childhood education is more than hugs and safekeeping. Neuroscience has demonstrated the rapid growth of children’s brains in their earliest years; economic studies have shown significant returns on investment. Other research shows that low compensation undermines quality. As a systematic review from this year summarizes, “Higher teacher qualifications are associated with higher quality early childhood education and care.” In other words, having educated educators is good for kids.

The less-discussed truth, however, is that having educated educators is good for educators too. It’s good for their own families and communities. It’s good for the school systems in the towns where they live; it’s good for the tax base of the nation. It’s good for them, full stop.

Let’s be clear: I’m not advocating for degree requirements, accompanied by a small increase in dollars, crossed fingers, and a hope it all works out. We have to collectively, carefully, and intentionally attend to the structural, institutional, and individual barriers that fall disproportionately on women of color. Washington has made a start in the right direction with its regulations and the BEGin Act, now under consideration by the D.C. Council to establish an infant and toddler educator compensation task force, and provide increased reimbursement rates to educators caring for infants and toddlers—but policymakers need to stop making compensation an afterthought. It can’t come later, for then (after newly educated educators have left the field for higher wages elsewhere), it will be too late.

There has to be a balance. If the field of child care on the whole makes educational gains, but loses the diversity that makes it both unique and effective, then we will have failed. On the other hand, if we start with the diverse field we have, and reject the opportunity to help these smart, undervalued workers gain education and an equitable, accessible path to higher-paid work that can’t be automated or offshored, then we all lose.

So let’s debate, as D.C. and states across the nation have done and continue to do, over the shared responsibility for how to pay for it. Let’s debate over the size and scope of initiatives; over what the right policy choices are and how to target funding. But let’s stop debating over whether these choices are worth the investment.

We can do better by the people—most of them women of color—who care for and educate our kids than thinking degrees aren’t for them, especially when the science is clear. We need high expectations and high levels of support to accompany them; our children and the people who love, care for, and educate them are worth nothing less.

Nov. 7 2017 10:00 AM

New Moms Have Plenty to Deal With at Work. Don’t Add More Guilt.

Spend five minutes talking to any new working mother, and you’re almost sure to hear the word guilt. I surveyed and/or interviewed more than 800 of them—CEOs and hourly workers, adoptive moms, single mothers, and traditional, married moms, too. The G-word came up again and again. Some working mothers felt “guilty,” they said, for leaving their babies with a sitter, or for asking their colleagues to take on extra tasks while they were on parental leave. Some even felt guilty for enjoying being back at work. The conflict these women felt was real, and it impacted every facet of their identity, at home and at work. For some, muddling through this guilt fostered emotional growth—they doubled down on mentoring and finding meaning in their work. For others, it triggered postpartum mood disorders that still haunt their parenting and their career ambition years later.

That’s why I was stunned to read author and therapist Erica Komisar extolling the virtues of mommy guilt in a recent Wall Street Journal interview. Her new book, Being There, urges mothers to stay home with their children for their first three years of life; my new book, The Fifth Trimester, gives new mothers the tools and agency to go back to work with a small baby, even if they must do so before they are physically and emotionally ready to be there, as 75 percent of the women I surveyed reported had been the case. Komisar wants working mothers to feel guilty so they will do as biology (allegedly) dictates and stay home with their infants.


The argument is rife with classist and sexist (and occasionally scientifically false) assumptions:

  • that women can afford to forgo a paycheck (or can jump back into the workforce years later without great penalty)
  • that men aren’t as biologically capable of nurturing infants (sorry, gay dads and stay-at-home fathers, your oxytocin doesn’t count)
  • and that any mother in distress has access to the kind of mental health care that Komisar offers from her office on New York’s Upper West Side.

But putting these assumptions aside, I want to address her overarching, wrong-minded intent: Komisar thinks she’s helping children by shackling their mothers with guilt.

Just as we've learned about gender, guilt is a social construct. I discovered in my research that when a mother feels guilty for working, she’s feeling anxious about a supposed “choice” she made in the context of societal norms—to work, to leave her baby, to invest in her career’s future and strive to make more money in spite of the gender pay gap. So when psychiatrist Christin Drake helps a new mother work through this guilt crisis, she takes the whole notion of choice out of the equation. “It is a unique situation of the American mother that we have to ad-hoc negotiate these things for ourselves,” Drake says, referencing the lack of paid parental leave and universal child care in the U.S. as compared with other developed countries around the world. “We are left to our own devices in terms of this planning, but also, more important, in terms of the judgments we make about ourselves in the process.” And if you don’t judge yourself already, Komisar will teach you how.

Even confident working mothers told me that the mom guilt they felt after watching early TV interviews with Komisar has stuck with them for months. "I've dried so many tears in my office because of mother haters," Drake says. Komisar claims that mothers who “devalue, deprioritize, and neglect their mothering,” as she puts it, risk their children’s emotional, social, and behavioral well-being. In the meantime, every morning, these women pack up their pump parts, manage the mental load, and must go to work, carrying with them the extra weight of the guilt Komisar has saddled on them.

Komisar is aware that her views are old-fashioned. She calls herself “a bit of a pariah” but excuses her judgments of mothers already in an untenable situation by leaning on the (sometimes loosely interpreted) science of the mother-infant connection. I’m a mother of two and know that connection intimately. Leaving for work in those early days felt like a second cutting of the umbilical cord, this time with nerve endings. I also know that biology dictates that I crave calories to sustain my life, but that doesn’t mean I’m eating all of my children’s Halloween chocolate. Social progress has always required that we look beyond our own base, biological inclinations at any given moment toward our greater long-term good. And in the long term, the science just doesn’t support Komisar’s dated ideas.

“There’s no evidence I know of that children whose mothers work but who are in loving caregiver relationships have detrimental outcomes in terms of their achievement or development,” says pediatrician and neuroscientist Kimberly Noble, who studies the impact of poverty on infant and child brain development and cognition at Columbia University’s Teachers College. A mother’s anxiety, on the other hand, has a real negative impact on the child. One new study published in Clinical Psychological Science shows that anxiety impairs intuitive decision-making. In other words, guilt can hamper a mother’s intuition—that holy grail of good parenting.

In Being There, Komisar does include one chapter for working moms titled, “When You Can’t Be There,” and another on how to repair the damage you have done by being absent. The upshot: Hire a good nanny, avoid day care, and tell your child, “I feel so sad when I am at work and can’t be with you.”

But what if you’re not sad? Or don’t want to be, or want to show your children, instead, the satisfaction you find in your work so that they might find some too one day? What if the "damage" you've done is far outweighed by the independence and love you've fostered with a whole network of caregivers? What if, instead of falling victim to guilt, we use that conflict as motivation to create a more supportive culture that provides what parents need to feel at peace about these decisions?

For that utopia to happen, mothers need adequate paid leave (for themselves and, equally, their partners), excellent prenatal and postpartum health care, deliberate re-entry benefits for their return to work, and federal and private workplace policies that support all of the above. It’s no coincidence that Norway, a country where most mothers work full time and have access to nearly a year of paid parental leave, ranks No. 1 on the world’s list of the happiest countries. It also, incidentally, has nearly double the average GDP per capita of the 30 advanced economies in the world studied by the World Economic Forum. Support for working mothers doesn’t come at the expense of economic productivity—it bolsters it!

Rather than shaming working mothers for not "being there" at home, we need to fortify them so they can revolutionize our economy and raise a future generation of innovative, satisfied workers who'll keep the progress going. How does American society get to that place from here? It starts in the boardroom, on the ballot, and on the train to work, toting a breast pump. It starts by being there.