Screw the rules – The rules didn’t work

Finally, a not-completely-horrible article about women blending work and family. There’s no shaming or guilting of women, which is a welcome step. But there is the usual focus on a narrow slice of woman-dom.

Kelly represents a new generation of American mothers who are rejecting the “superwoman” image from the 1980s as well as the “soccer mom” stereotype of the 1990s. Mothers today are more likely to negotiate flexible schedules at work and demand fuller participation of fathers in child raising than previous generations did, giving them more time to pursue their own careers and interests. Some so-called mompreneurs start their own businesses. Nearly 26 percent of working women with children under 18 work flexible schedules, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared with 14 percent in 1991.

“Fifteen to 20 years ago, women in suits and sneakers…were playing by the traditional rules of the game, trying to live in a man’s world. Now women are saying, ‘Screw the rules—the rules didn’t work,'” says Kellyanne Conway, president of the Polling Co., a research firm. Conway, 40, the mother of twins who are almost 3 years old, started her business in 1995, allowing her to set her own hours and occasionally work from home.

The article doesn’t hand-wring over the “impossibility” of having it all, but it does point out that employers remain hostile to change:

Not that it’s always easy. Heidi Leigh, 34, a former theater sales manager and mother of a 1-year-old in South Plainfield, N.J., tried to shift her schedule a half-hour earlier in the day so she could get home in time to pick up her son from day care and make dinner. Her boss said no. “He wouldn’t allow it, because he didn’t want other people to do the same thing,” she says.

“More and more companies are hip to [flexibility], but it’s still not the norm,” cautions Michelle Goodman, author of The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube.

My major problem with the article is that it comes from a very privileged place — the Average American Woman isn’t a highly-valued employee in a professional office who, if need be, can drop everything and start her own business. Self-employment is great, but most people don’t have the start-up capital to open their own family-friendly bakery.

It’s easy for someone like me to look at these issues with blinders on — after all, I’m entering the legal profession, and these work-life issues are much-discussed aspects of law firm culture. Firms boast about their family leave policies when they recruit new attorneys. There are entire collectives within the American Bar Association focused on strategizing ways to deal with these issues. The “working woman,” in my mind, goes to work wearing a business suit.

But that isn’t reality. The reality is that women dominate the low-wage pink-collar workforce, and “opting out” isn’t an option for lots of these women. For a lot of women, even adequate paid maternity leave is a pipe dream; the right to a flexible schedule in order to be home for dinner is a joke if you’re working two or three jobs just to make ends meet. My own mother was able to balance raising kids with a job she loves by working part-time, and by being married to a full-time breadwinner. Her mother, a single mom raising five kids in the 1950s, worked as a waitress in two restaurants and as a crossing guard — an article like this would be entirely irrelevant to her life.

So I’m glad to see that the most privileged women are making small changes to the traditional work rules. They’re in the best position to do it, and we’re all pretty fucked when it comes to work-life policies, so it’s great that they’re seeing some successes. I just hope that it doesn’t stop with the professional class. And I hope journalists start representing the diverse realities of working women.

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6 comments for “Screw the rules – The rules didn’t work

  1. Kat
    September 17, 2007 at 11:49 am

    Thanks for this. I get a little weary of seeing a tag line on a magazine promising that I can have it all, only to open up and read all about how I can start my own business like these other amazing moms did. Which is something that is a long shot for me.

    I went to a job recently for a company that promised “flex-time”. This sounded perfect for me. After getting through a grueling 4-hour-job interview, I asked about the flex-time. They said that meant that I could either do a 7-4 shift with one hour lunch, or a 7:15-4 shift, with a 45-minute lunch. They honestly believed this met the defintion of family friendly.

    And, a lot of workplaces simply don’t or can’t offer flexible hours. My neighbor, a single-mom, works at the shipyard. When her son hit school age, she was in a bind–her male-dominated workplace runs on a shiftwork schedule. The whistle blows at 7 a.m., which doesn’t work with the available before school childcare in our area (which generally opens at 6:30 and she’s got a 45-minute commute.) Luckily a neighbor stepped in to take him in the mornings.

  2. September 17, 2007 at 12:43 pm

    For me, the problem with this article and others like it is a discussion of women’s work without actually mentioning the realities of the U.S. labor market. The tra-la-la tone (with only one or two asides about some bosses not being flexible, but, hey, you can always start your own business!) is disturbing, especially when the reality of diminishing job opportunities, an increase in under- as well as un-employment (real numbers, not the cooked government numbers), and loss of benefits across the board (insurance, pensions) are ubuiquitous.

    Any article that blithely suggests opening one’s own business as a substitute for a job with a living wage is a problem. “Entrepreneurship” is a failure within the first year for 25% of business-startups; 50% are out of business within four years. You might as well head down to the local casino and gamble your money away: you’ve got just as much chance of walking away from the table richer.

    Since most small businesses take a while to start earning a profit (figure two years to be really in the black even for a successfull business), you can’t really start one in the first place if you’re undercapitalized. Doing so if you have children and they’re solely dependent on your income for survival is a pretty risky and hair-raising proposition. And yet… one of the businesses touted in the article is a “mompreneurship” endeavor that encourages women to think that they can all make money working from home… just like we used to be told that if we clipped coupons and entered contests diligently enough, we’d have enough spare cash to get our hair done and buy our bon-bons.

    A new study points out that simply being small in size presents a business with problems, making it especially vulnerable to failure ( Stay-at-home mom business almost all fall within this category. Economies of scale will nail you almost every time…

    Instead of encouraging moms to be part of the growing population of folks who have to declare bankruptcy, we ought to be working to secure jobs and rights for women and men working in the U.S. (not just U.S. citizens, but all persons — legal and undocumented — employed here).

    Women benefit from labor organizing efforts, which the women of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union certainly knew when they began organizing hard in the Depression. Women don’t benefit from being discussed as if they’re a “unique” class of worker who needs the “special” privileges of flexible hours — ALL American workers need jobs that allow them also to be parents, if they have children.

    The answer is not downsizing women’s jobs so they can rock the (uninsured) baby in the cradle while furiously sewing pink car seat covers (so that consumers can make sure passersbye will notice the baby in the car is a girl because GIRLS LOVE PINK). I mean, come on….

    Being offered a choice between “opting out” or asking nicely if one’s kind boss will grant flexibility is hardly a choice at all. (And this is the situation most women — who are NOT privileged professionals– are in). Organizing for change is the only real choice.

    Where are those free or low-cost daycare centers at places of employment? Haven’t feminists been agitating for those for fifty years? Are we just cool about not getting them? Or are our expectations getting lower and lower as slowly as a lobster comes to boil in a pot?

    To me, this article is part of the problem — another example of postfeminist cant. We don’t need plucky (but hopelessly naive) individuals starting more home internet businesses; we need courageous organizers fighting for our rights.

  3. September 17, 2007 at 5:48 pm

    About a month ago I made this post over on my blog:

    The first article I picked up on highlighted how, in Britain at least, the difference in rules for working fathers and for working mothers, makes it very much more difficult for fathers to take on a leading role in caring for their child. The article also set about ranking the various companies in terms of their treatment of mothers.

  4. Kat
    September 18, 2007 at 7:42 am

    The answer is not downsizing women’s jobs so they can rock the (uninsured) baby in the cradle while furiously sewing pink car seat covers (so that consumers can make sure passersbye will notice the baby in the car is a girl because GIRLS LOVE PINK). I mean, come on….

    Yeah, I thought this was odd. Really? The color of the car seat is a problem? And why is it that all these home-based businesses that are going to allow me to set my own hours usually center around sewing and crafts? I’m doomed to the cubicle farm forever if that’s the case.

    I knew a woman who made car seat covers. They were very cute, but unless you have the business knowledge to outsource your labor, etc., you are limited by your own ability to keep up with the demand. So she made a nice side income selling them at craft fairs, but certainly was not self-supporting on this alone.

    The other thing with all these home-based businesses is that I don’t really buy that you can set your own hours all the time. You still have to interact with other people/businesses usually, who won’t find it charming that you are switching meeting times, etc., you have deadlines to meet and bills to pay and payroll, etc. And usually getting any business off the ground takes tons of time investment,especially at the onset.

  5. September 18, 2007 at 1:03 pm

    It’s easy for someone like me to look at these issues with blinders on — after all, I’m entering the legal profession, and these work-life issues are much-discussed aspects of law firm culture. Firms boast about their family leave policies when they recruit new attorneys.

    Some firms may be ahead of the curve, but the legal profession is still a viciously rough row to hoe for a woman. And with the legal job market as tight as it is, I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets worse before it gets better.

    Thank your stars for being able to go to a top ten school, Jill. And thank them again for the fact that you’re in a situation where you can take full advantage of the educational opportunities available to you while you’re there. It’s going to save you some bruising after graduation.

  6. james
    September 18, 2007 at 2:11 pm

    I went to an interview recently where the (male) interviewer said that it was important to be able to work late if it is needed. He then casually mentioned that the company has a lot of problems with women who feel they have to get home to cook their husband’s dinner.

    That made me feel really strange. On the one hand it sounded like a misogynistic dismissal of women’s concerns about balancing work and family. But on the other hand, they were being criticised for behaving in like stepford wives. I do wonder about this. How much of the support for and result of work-life agenda is about enabling women to get home to do work there is no reason they should be doing.

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