By Melissa J. Anderson

“We have to redefine what it means to be a successful man and a good mother,” said Joan C. Williams, Distinguished Professor of Law and Director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings.

Williams, who has just published a new book on the subject of work/family conflict, Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter, believes that there are several gender and class related inconsistencies that are keeping both women and men from achieving their best at home and work. Williams explained, “While women are under pressure to be good mothers, always available to their children, men face gender pressures, too. Men are judged, to borrow a quote from feminism in the 70s, ‘by the size of their paycheck’ —which makes it very different to draw a line in the sand and say, ‘I need to go home to my family.’”

While the “good mother ideal” is problematic for women in the workforce, men now face similar inconsistencies. In the past, Williams said, men were culturally expected to work long hours to live up to the “provider” role – which fit right in with workplace expectations of what a good worker looked like. But now, men are faced with a new cultural ideal: that of the “nurturing father.”

Williams explained, “Men are now caught between two ideals.” The workplace ideal for men has not yet caught up with changing notions of masculinity at home. And women are unlikely to find male support in changing the structure of the workplace until that workplace supports the new needs of men too.

“Until gender pressures on men change, things aren’t going to change for much of women, either.”

The Great American Speed-Up

Williams pointed out that one reason for these inconsistencies is “a sharp rise in expectations of what parents owe to children, popularly referred to as ‘helicopter parenting.’”

She continued, “It’s a very greedy definition of what you need to give a child in order for the child to be brought up right.”

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, “Mother Madness,” novelist Erica Jong describes the phenomenon, writing, “You wear your baby, sleep with her and attune yourself totally to her needs. How you do this and also earn the money to keep her is rarely discussed.”

It’s the idea that “proper” (intensive) nurturing can produce exceptional traits in children. Jong continues:

“Few of us question the idea, and American mothers and fathers run themselves ragged trying to mold exceptional children. It’s a highly competitive race. No parent wants to be told it all may be for naught, especially, say, a woman lawyer who has quit her firm to raise a child. She is assumed to be pursuing a higher goal, and hard work is supposed to pay off, whether in the office or at home. We dare not question these assumptions.”

Williams cautioned that this style of child-rearing is particular to the wealthy and upper middle classes. But, she said, by and large, parenting has become more demanding. And the trend affects men too. “Most of the new demands are on mothers, but there is a matching set of demands on men, who are increasingly caught up in the new ideal of the nurturing father,” yet, she said, workplaces are not responding to “the great American speed-up” with father-friendly policies. Men are still, for the most part, expected to pull the long hours and late shifts, while their demands at home are increase as well.

Steps Toward an Inclusive Workplace

What can we do? How can we make workplaces better suited toward today’s work/family needs? Williams said, “When we talk about work/family conflict, we talk about professional women opting out – but often they are pushed out, because of all-or-nothing workplaces. But we rarely talk about class. Less well-to-do men and women are one sick child away from being fired.”

In 2000, Williams and the Center for WorkLife Law developed legal theories and public policies to address work/family issues, but, “the last new legislation to address work/family issues was in 1993.”

She continued, “I thought about what it would it take to really help Americans balance work and family: subsidized child care, parental leaves that are longer and are paid, limits on mandatory overtime, the right to request workplace flexibility. Politically, none of these is feasible right now.”

“The US is one of four countries in the world without nationally subsidized paid maternity leave. It’s tough for individual employers to cover their own employees’ maternity leave, and countries that require individual employers to fund maternity leave often find employers reluctant to hire women.” She continued, “We strongly urge employers to offer maternity and paternity leave, but the experience around the world shows the way to accomplish paid parental leave without discrimination against women is to sponsor it at the national level.”

And she said, “It’s crucial for any high hours profession to have a nonstigmatized 40 hour work-week. At too many companies, employees are reluctant to use flexible work arrangements because of the flexibility stigma—the fear that actually using the policies will be a career stopper or staller.”

Because policy directed towards these outcomes seems unlikely in the short term, Williams said, one approach is to focus on changing workplace structure and culture – to respond to the needs of men as well as women. After all, a truly inclusive workplace policy would be gender-blind to flextime and parental leave offerings.