For the Family?

How class and gender shape women's work

The Blame Game

Work-family topics are in the spotlight, but real issues are often ignored.

As a work-family scholar, I’ve been delighted to see how many times work-family issues have made the national news this year. From The Atlantic to the New York Times to Newsweek to Time, the national media has devoted significant print to issues related to work-family conflict, women’s pay, breastfeeding, and health care coverage for families. Yet, some of the most prominent of these articles seem to be playing the blame game, suggesting that women are at fault for their continued experience of work-family conflict. These articles suggest that if only women wanted less, weren’t perfectionists, asked for more help, breastfed longer (or maybe shorter), then their lives would be significantly easier. One of the main problems with these arguments is that they tend to focus on how individuals could change their behavior to fix what is actually a structural problem. In other words, many of today’s institutions continue to operate under the outdated assumption that there’s someone at home who is taking care of the kids, cooking dinner, and doing the household chores. Yet dual-earner families and single-parent families are now the norm, not the exception, making up over two-thirds of all households with children. When everyone is working, it’s not always clear who can be home when a child is sick or a boss adds a mandatory overtime shift. So, there’s a mismatch between what institutions expect (workers who don’t need to worry about families) and the reality of most workers’ lives. 

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As we celebrate National Work and Family Month this October, I’d like to suggest we redirect our attention away from the blame game and to the lack of public policies that continue to make work-family conflict a significant concern in the lives of most women and men. Because although a recent Newsweek article suggests that work-family conflict is “women’s problem,” research suggests that men also struggle with work-family conflict. Joan Williams reports that close to 90 percent of dads say that they would like to spend more time with their kids and Ellen Galinsky finds that 60 percent of fathers now experience work-family conflict, up from only 35 percent in 1977. 

There are many reasons that men and women face work-family conflict, but one of the most challenging is the lack of paid family leave. As Jody Heymann and colleagues write, the United States is one of four countries without a paid family leave policy. The other three are Liberia, Papau New Guinea, and Swaziland—not a particularly inspirational grouping. A new Russell Sage Foundation graphic shows that only three states provide for paid maternity leave and only three states provide for paid family leave. This leaves many families struggling to keep afloat after the birth of a child, when a child becomes ill, or when elderly parents need care.

One of the reasons that these articles tend to blame women and suggest ways that women can change is that it seems easier for individuals to make changes, rather than to demand new public policies. But if the authors of these articles, impressive women with advanced degrees, financial resources, and high-powered jobs, find themselves lacking solutions to work-family conflict, how are the rest of us meant to achieve these goals? Yet the majority of Americans are looking for solutions to work-family challenges in their lives.

Given the enormity of these challenges, it is time for bold change. The Center for American Progress has recently released an exciting new policy suggestion to address the lack of paid family leave in our country. The authors propose a new national Social Security Cares Act, to be administered through the Social Security program, which will provide paid leave when employees need time off for family or medical reasons. By building off the historically popular Social Security program, the new program could make use of the already existing infrastructure, saving both businesses and state and local government money. The program would provide up to 12 weeks of partially paid leave and could be taken by either men or women, allowing men to participate more fully in the childcare rearing needs of the family. The authors propose funding the act the same way that California and New Jersey fund their paid family leaves—via small increases in payroll taxes.

While I am sure that some readers will argue they should not have to pay for the childcare needs of others, I would urge us all to think of children as Nancy Folbre writes, as a public good, necessary to the continued well-being of our nation. Children grow up to be workers and taxpayers, and serve as our national hope for a better tomorrow. Making it possible for their caregivers to care for them while maintaining their jobs makes economic sense. As we head into the presidential debates, it would be exciting to see the candidates address the Social Security Cares Act proposal. Or I’d like to hear them give their own ideas about how they would address the most pressing work-family dilemmas. It’s clear that work-family issues are making headlines because they are of great importance to most Americans. It’s time to take these concerns seriously.

Sarah Damaske, Ph.D., is the author of For the Family? How Class and Gender Shape Women's Work. more...

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