Rethinking Family Policy
A mong academics, journalists, politicians, feminist lead – /% ers, and almost everyone else whose opinions on the role of modern-day women are in print, there is. Ж. widespread agreement that something must be done to harmonize work and family life. As to the best approach, the overwhelming majority back two courses of action—the adoption of so-called family-friendly policies and of genderneutralizing policies.
The first and most popular approach encompasses a range of public and private measures, starting most notably with the provision of subsidized, high-quality nonmaternal child care, which allow mothers with young children to be able to work.1 Regarding this course, the United States is often advised by family-policy analysts to follow Europe’s lead and has indeed been moving in that direction.2 Between 1994 and 1999, public spending on child care in the United States shot up by 60 percent, as previously noted. More recently, David Kirp detected a universal preschool movement taking off, with Oklahoma, of all the unlikely places, in the lead—63 percent of the
state’s four-year-olds were in public preschool programs in 2004. At the same time, 57 percent of Georgia’s four-year-olds were in preschool programs, and a serious bid to introduce universal preschool was being entertained in Florida.3 In 2006, however, a referendum to introduce universal preschool in California was roundly defeated. Currently, the stirrings of a universal preschool movement in the United States are faint but palpable.
After early child care, paid parental leave and part-time work schedules are most frequently endorsed as mechanisms needed to balance motherhood and active labor-force participation. The Netherlands, for example, has made considerable efforts to stimulate and regulate part-time employment. More than one-third of Dutch workers have a part-time job, giving the Netherlands the highest level of part-time employment in Europe. Women hold 67 percent of these jobs.4
Far-reaching statutory measures are complemented by more-circumscribed voluntary workplace policies such as flexible working hours, access to a telephone for family-related calls, and special family leave.5 Specific policies are often tailored to assist women on the fast track to high-powered careers in law firms, universities, hospitals, and other professional sectors of the private market. For most women aiming high, the road to commanding positions in the administrative power structure of Fortune 500 companies, partnerships in elite law firms and medical practices, tenured faculty posts at research universities, and influential media posts begins in graduate school. At the University of California, for example, family-friendly initiatives for graduate students include providing day-care facilities for toddlers, extending the period of time for the completion of course work, and offering paid maternity leave for students who receive university support.
Faculty get a somewhat heftier package of benefits, such as excused leave from the tenure clock for up to two years, a parttime option, paid maternity leave, and modified work responsibilities that provide paid relief from all teaching duties for up to two semesters.6 (However, university benefits such as the two-semester paid relief from work do not extend to secretaries, administrative assistants, janitorial staff, and others not on the tenure track.)
The second conventional approach involves policies aimed at reducing if not completely eliminating gender-role differentiation in family life and the labor market. Along with the drive for family-friendly policies, there is ubiquitous support for measures to advance gender equality as a means of reconciling motherhood and paid employment. Increasing gender equality in domestic tasks, and most importantly in childrearing, is seen as a way to relieve mothers of some of the burden of unpaid family labor so that they can devote more time and energy to their careers. It is widely accepted that in dual-earner families, the struggle to balance work and family life should be more equally distributed between parents. This approach is promoted by rules and incentives designed to modify traditional gender roles. Thus, the OECD counsels that social benefits should be structured to “carry the same incentives for both sexes with regard to the division of time between paid employment, domestic duties, and leisure.”7
Efforts to balance policy-generated incentives for mothers and fathers are most evident in maternity-leave reform. Not only have many maternity-leave systems been transformed into parental leave, which can be taken by both fathers and mothers, but in recent years Denmark, Norway, and Italy have introduced reforms under which one month of parental leave is restricted to use only by fathers. Portugal’s policy of parental leave has a “father quota” of fifteen days.8 Iceland’s policy of parental leave generates a forceful “use it or lose it” incentive, with three months of leave allocated strictly to fathers (in addition, three months are allocated to mothers, and another three months can be shared as the parents wish). In contrast to the “use it or lose it” policies, which significantly diminish the amount of parental leave for families if fathers do not participate, in Finland fathers who take the last twelve days of parental leave receive a bonus of twelve extra days of leave.9
To what extent have these various incentives induced men to assume a greater share of child-care responsibility? On this issue, the Swedish experience is informative. With one of the best known and most generous systems of parental leave, Sweden has been at the forefront of efforts to increase fathers’ involvement in child care. After a 1995 reform, the Swedish system provided 360 days of parental leave at 80 percent of the parent’s salary, plus another 90 days reimbursed at a flat rate of approximately eight dollars a day. The centerpiece of this reform required that at least one month of leave had to be taken by each of the parents. Since there was really no need to urge mothers to take advantage of this benefit, the obligatory leave became known as the “daddy month.”
The Swedish government expected the daddy month to alter the division of child-care labor to create “a more even distribution of interruptions in work between men and women” (echoing the perception of childrearing as an “interruption” in employment, noted in Chapter 4).10 An analysis comparing the use of parental leave immediately before and after the 1995 reform shows that Swedish fathers increased the amount of time taken by an average of fifteen days. (Swedish mothers still account for about 80 percent of the highly compensated leave days.) Although it is rumored that the fathers’ periods of leave tend to coincide with the Winter Olympics and other major sporting events, this is not borne out empirically. Fathers did take more leave when their children were between one and two years of age. And when the children were older than two years of age, there was a clear tendency among fathers to take parental leaves in the summer months and during Christmas, suggesting the use of leaves to prolong regular paid holidays. (The days of leave can be taken any time until the child reaches the age of eight.) As anticipated, Swedish fathers responded directly to the 1995 reform’s “use it or lose it” incentive by using more days of leave. Still, the question remains about the extent to which this benefit-related shift spawns a more fundamental change in traditional gender roles. Indeed, when it came to the traditionally female task of caring for sick children, the researchers found no change in the fathers’ share of care.11
In 2002 the Swedish system was reformed again as the government added 30 more days of parental leave compensated at 80 percent of the parent’s salary, lifting the highly paid period of leave up to 390 days and bringing the total leave to 480 days. At the same time the government upped the ante, allocating 60 days of the total leave to fathers only—resulting in two daddy months. Further reforms were considered in 2005, including a proposal to expand the period of 80 percent compensation to fifteen months, with five months each reserved for the father and mother and allocation of the remaining five months left to the parents’ discretion.12
As parental leave in Sweden presses on toward greater gender equality, public opinion lags somewhat behind the ambitions of policy makers and gender feminists. Although in principle gender equality and parental leave are widely supported, less than half the parents in both Sweden and the United States think that men and women should participate equally in paid employment and child care.13 Swedish men still take only a small percentage of the leave to which they are entitled, and this leave tends to be concentrated among highly educated men in the public sector.14
In the United States, fathers are spending more time with their children and shouldering a greater share of household work today than in the past, even without highly compensated parental leave. Increased equality has loosened the shackles of traditional gender hierarchy in domestic relations and cleared the path for the transferring of women’s labor from the household to the market—thus broadening women’s horizons. Statutory provisions (such as child care and parental leave) emanating from the halls of Congress, along with organizational adjustments (such as flexible working hours) crafted on the ground floor of workplace settings, have expanded the opportunities for mothers to engage in paid employment. These various developments represent significant progress in the struggle to reconcile motherhood and labor-force participation. Certainly, much more remains to be done along these lines to balance the demands of work and family life for mothers who must work out of genuine necessity, who wish to pursue paid careers, or who are already the primary earner in their family (about one-third of all working wives earned more than their husbands in 2004).15
However, these two broad avenues for reconciling work and family life are essentially designed to carry traffic in one direction—the objective of both is to move mothers into paid employment while raising young children. The tenets of gender equality demand not only that men bear an equal share of domestic activity but that women keep up with men in the world of work. To do that, they have to start working as early as men. Public provisions of child care, family leave, and regu
lated work schedules make it possible (though not easy) to raise young children while maintaining an ongoing and relatively stable pattern of employment outside the home—a lifestyle preferred by many, though clearly not all, women. This approach follows what I have called the male model, which basically involves a seamless transition from school into the paid labor force along with a drive to rise as high as possible in a given line of work.
The male model remains the prevailing expectation among gender feminists. The pattern of an early start and a continuous work history imposes a temporal frame on policies to balance work and family life. Within this frame the idea of “balancing” refers to the concurrent performance of labor – force participation and childrearing activities. Just as policies promoting the male model deserve public support, so too, I would argue, do alternatives that offer aid and encouragement to women who want to follow a different course in life’s journey through motherhood and employment. In posing these alternatives my objective is to sketch neither a comprehensive list of policy options nor an elaborate blueprint for a particular initiative. My purpose is to broaden public perceptions of the choices and help reframe the debate—a pursuit toward which efforts are already afoot.16