Not Just Women's Work

Not Just Women's Work

Not Just Women's Work

Slate's blog on legal issues.
April 8 2008 7:05 AM

Not Just Women's Work

Sen. Clinton may or may not be the next Democratic nominee for president. But her candidacy represents to many voters a positive statement in favor of gender equality.

I've cast my lot with Sen. Obama , but if he fails to cross the finish line, I bet it will have less to do with the overheated statements of his pastor or his bowling than with the fact that—however much the Clintons together generate suspicion or should be eliminated on the democratic (small "d") "no second rides" theory—Mrs. Clinton is still, well, a woman and more than a few citizens (myself included) think having a woman president long overdue. 

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Why overdue? 

Because, frankly, I have three daughters among my five children and it would be salutary if they would be less subject than my wife’s generation to arbitrary gender-based impediments as they reach toward their aspirations. For more than 30 years now,   I’ve watched highly talented women law graduates face the same overly rigid law-firm and corporate structure that somehow pretends not to know that many (not all) women have a desire to both practice their chosen profession and parent.   I’m all for the free market, but the market has been treating families as if they were a free good, and just as "the tragedy of the commons" despoils the commonly held air and water, corporate elevation of its bottom line over family well-being shortchanges the family—and us all.

Men, of course, too often silently shrug this off as if it were none of their business, perhaps even thinking again silently (since openly would yield a cold stare or litigation) that gender-based distinctions are not arbitrary impediments at all but simply the rational economic calculus applied. Of course, we men know it's darn hard to do parenting and professional work at the same time, which is, of course, why most of us don’t attempt it. So it came as no surprise when, lo and behold, a recent Canadian study by Jean E. Wallace and Marisa C. Young proved the obvious that women with children are less "productive" than women without children.

As I indicate in  additional commentary on this study, and as Emily Bazelon has noted, "productive" is in scare quotes because the study measured productivity in accordance with the dreaded billable hour, which persists in making law practice a modern form of well-paid slavery, rather than service—which, digressing just for a moment, the practice might have a chance of becoming yet again were flat or contingent fees the more standard means of law-firm accounting. In any event, apart from the severe damage the billable hour does to the sheer enjoyment of legal work, it is not a perfect measure of productivity, since obviously some people can get a lot more done in a small amount of time than others, and women are often superb multi-taskers.

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Confirming as it does that we men are not particularly helpful when it comes to making the family-work balance possible, it’s tempting to hide the Canadian study under the rug. That's not to say that husbands don't lend moral support to our personal spouse's effort at not forgetting those grueling years of law, business or medical training as she is singing the alphabet song for the 15th time or is driven to the edge by the "see and say" machine. Some men—especially guests on Oprah—do this and more. It's just that—if we're honest—kicking doors open for women generally at the office has not been high on our to-do list—what with foreign outsourcing and all. In fact, according to the Canadians, men may be giving family-friendly benefits a bad name. Things like flexible hours were found to have a negative impact on a man's productivity while working at odd hours didn't affect a woman's productivity one whit. Men, it seems, tend to use these flexible hours to goof off, while women use them to finish drafting the merger agreement while waiting interminably in the doctor's waiting room.  Second, men with babies at home work overtime. Go figure. Third, even when men attempt to do more of the parenting, they're not that very good at it. The study found that men who have a stay-at-home partner get a lot done, whereas women who have stay-at-home husbands don't receive any particular advantage from it.

None of this is particularly encouraging for those of us who believe the workplace—still dominated by men, of course—has a special obligation to accommodate the needs of the family as an irreplaceable cultural building block. Indeed, one "unexpected"—though perhaps not surprising—finding given the above pattern is that women without children work the hardest of all, including men . It's bad enough that men are seemingly misusing the flex benefits; just think what the male senior partners will rationally deduce when the word gets out that the hardest worker bee in the hive is the childless queen. To quote the researchers themselves, the obvious way for women "to balance work and family is to reduce their family commitments, which may be accomplished by having fewer or no children." Yes, that's one way, but it is also a prescription for cultural suicide.

We like to think work is for the benefit of men and women and not the other way around. At least, the last time I checked this was the right order of things. The reverse proposition—that we live to rack up billable hours—would be bleak indeed, though that is pretty much the life of a young associate at any major law firm in the United States. To have a chance at getting our priorities straight, I suggest some changes in employment practices, nondiscrimination, and tax law, but would being family-friendly violate Equal Protection? 

Possibly to a justice who doesn’t think child-rearing an important or compelling state interest. But who’s in that group? Surely Justices Ginsburg and liberal-thinkers like John Paul Stevens and David Souter wouldn’t want the law to be construed in a way that narrows a woman’s choices. Since under existing law pregnancy (or "pre-birth child care") cannot be a basis of discrimination against women, why should care delivered "post-birth"?  It would make no sense for either Justice Thomas, who flirts with natural law, or Justice Kennedy, who is often its modern source—worrying as he does about the ability of folks to "define their own place in the universe"—to object to giving a public tax subsidy or telling public employers not to discriminate against working mothers. If the limitation extended to private employers, Justice Thomas might drop a footnote telling us again how much he misses the original understanding of the commerce clause, but he has let similar measures go through biting his stare decisis tongue. Those in the law-as-umpire ("just callin’ em as we see 'em") group, the chief justice and Justices Scalia and Alito, might raise a judicially-restrained eyebrow at these innovations, but it would be perverse if those who oppose an unfettered abortion right were to go out of their way not to understand the relevant customs and traditions that underlie the "liberty" of the Fifth and 14th Amendments as family-friendly. And if these measures promote a more "active liberty"—and expanding opportunities for women does, one would think (though I confess the whole "active liberty" concept still is a tad elusive)—Justice Breyer should also be satisfied. In any event, any law is certain to be drafted gender-neutrally, using terminology like "primary caregiver" (though everyone will know that category will still mostly be women).

The presidential candidates like to talk about change. It is time we explore new employment relationships that don’t reflect 19th-century attitudes that undervalue home and family to the detriment of us all.