Working Women Still Working toward Independence

RosieOn our nation’s birth date, I thought it would be appropriate to post a brief story about my thoughts on our nation’s history, especially our working history. This idea was predicated on an article that I read this morning in the Arizona Republic on how our economy “stacks up” to other countries. While I am sure that the author of the story cites appropriate and accurate statistics, I do want to take him to task on one important issue. He says the following:

“Average U.S. household income of $37,690 (in 2008) was well above the OECD average of $22,284. Two-thirds of teens and adults here have a job, including 73 percent of mothers – a sign of positive work/life balance for women.”

While I am happy to see that earnings are higher-than-projected in 2008, I am quite concerned that the author of this article equates work with positive work/life balance. I am not entirely certain what the author of this article is speaking to, but I can assume that there is a specific reason why he uses this language.

First, the idea that women are working more hours can be considered a good thing. When the economy shifted in the 1940s to needed more workers in support of a multi-nation war, our country turned to women. J. Howard Miller’s “We can Do It!” poster (coined Rosie the Riveter) is an excellent example of the power that women had (and still do have) to change the course of the American economy. Clearly, the installation of a diverse and robust working life for women spawned the creation of myriad work/life balance issues. Indeed, the addition of complex work to the multitude of domains women already focused on in the 1940s created the notion of work/life conflict for many women. Now, women had to balance their working lives with the family lives. For most, this was a difficult choice, but a necessary one — the economy needed women to work, while men were out on the battlefield.  For women, the working domain stopped there — women could build bullets and bombs, but (seldom) could they use them. When the men returned from the battlefields…women went back to their lives and left work for the men.

Now, let me stop here for a quick aside…I am not representing the fact that I think I understand the plight of the female worker. Quite the contrary, I don’t! In fact, as a man, I believe I have a very different set of experiences than my female counterparts. That being said, I think that this post is incredibly relevant, given the notion that faulty characterizations of statistics are so prevalent in many places, even in the Arizona Republic. To say that “more women work means more women have positive work/life balance” is not only a faulty characterization, but a truly warped view of reality. To say that work by anyone (male or female) should equate to the experience of balance is a myth. Indeed, the myth here can be found in the metaphor of work/life balance itself. While I am not going to spend the balance of this post critiquing that metaphor (don’t worry…I’ll have a post that does that very thing real soon), I do want to spend some time just addressing some major issues with working women achieving “balance.”

The fact that more women work today than did a few decades ago is far from being a characteristic of “positive work/life balance.” Instead, as with what happened in the 1940s, many women have to work. This idea is not a choice, but a requirement. Now, the same can be said of men — for the most part, they have to work for the same reasons as women. Would I like to see more “stay at home” dads and female leaders of fortune 500 companies — YES, I would (perhaps that would help lead to more humane working environments, but that’s a conversation best left for another day). Today, more women have to work because of the economy — perhaps a sign that things aren’t as great as the Arizona Republic make them out to be. In addition to that, more women want to work…they want to have an identity outside of their familial identity (although, there is nothing wrong with the identity of a “mother,” but perhaps more working mothers are doing so for both pragmatic and esteem reasons). However, given the fact that women are working doesn’t do anything to improve their reports of work/life conflict, in fact, it only exacerbates the problems. So many researchers continue to point out the fact that even when the wife in a dual-earner couple brings in more than 60% of the household income, she still does more than 51% of the household labor. Why is that?? As soon as the men returned home from World War II, the women went back into their homes and, once again, were relegated to that one domain. As soon as husbands and wives return to their homes, the women continue to be relegated to completing their domestic chores, even when they are the primary breadwinners.

I know that I am not the only person who feels troubled by these statistics. I know that many working women continue to feel that their struggles toward equity in their houses are mere hints at the troubles that women face in the working world — are mere reflections of the larger social issues that relegate women to a particular domain. Perhaps before anyone can declare independence from these issues, they must first declare independence from the metaphor that binds them all together…the metaphor that claims that we must seek balance to be productive and that balance must exist between two competing domains of work and life.

So…what do you think?

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