Over the past year American culture dove headfirst into a discussion of women in the workforce, sinking so firmly into the issue that we’re facing down Issue Fatigue. Issue Fatigue is the point where a problem is talked about so much that we collectively acclimate to it and stop feeling motivated to act. We often need to be shocked to feel incentived to take action. Think of the shock that came with dumping a bucket of ice over your head to raise awareness for Lou Gehrig’s disease. Unless you have a friend or family member afflicted, have you put much thought into the the disease since?
I don’t have anything shocking to add to the women in the workforce discussion, but I do think that many of the conversations online are ignoring a crucial component keeping women out of the workforce – unpaid work, as defined by Anne-Marie Slaughter in Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family. Specifically the unpaid work of acting as Caretakers and Guardians. Caretakers of children, caretakers of the ill, caretakers of the elderly, guardians of our educational system and other important low-pay or no-pay efforts. Over 50% of women in the US have at least one child to care for, and those without little ones to manage have sick friends and aging parents in a society that assumes women are naturally predisposed to be “better” at this sort of work.
When I hear talk about “79 Cents to the Dollar” it often feels as though there is something lurking under the surface, a metamessage about the grand conspiracy men are possibly participating in to actively keep women underpaid. Certainly there are important discussions to be had about how girls and young women need to be encouraged to speak up and negotiate, and the very real ways that women are often penalized or negatively characterized for standing up and speaking out. But there is no conspiracy, at least not to pay women less.
What we are facing down is the underbelly of capitalism, the drive to make as much money as quickly and as efficiently as possible. The best worker is always available, always present, and has no obligations barring his ability to churn out productive work as fast as the Jimmy Dean factory line cranks out sausage. This is the sort of employee a Caretaker and Guardian can never be.
Last year I completed a rigorous coding bootcamp called Dev Bootcamp, enduring nine-straight weeks of twelve-hour days, seven-days-per-week, with the hope that it would be a launching pad into an exciting full-time career after spending the last five years running my own photography business with babies and toddlers in my lap. During the coding program I extricated myself from the household and the childcare completely, relying on my husband and our wonderful nanny to fill in for me for a few months. I prepared for and completed that program with every intention of interviewing for full-time web development positions in the Bay Area. Maybe I would get lucky and my employer would be the kind with a rock-climbing wall, catered lunch, and a happy hour cart!
But after graduation, when I was able to catch my breath and take a look around, I saw that the house and my children had fallen through the cracks during my mental and physical break from being at home. My husband’s aggressive career path doesn’t make enough room for him to be an equal co-parent, and hiring help can cover the cleaning of the kitchen and bathing of children, but it doesn’t address the cognitive work and coordination that go into making sure that kids are being properly cared for and homes are running like a tight ship. Not to mention the lack of backup care I have to fill in with if our nanny is unavailable or ill or decides to move on to a different stage in her life. And the most troubling thought of all – the looming possibility of stretching myself too thin and regularly feeling like I am failing at work and at home.
I put my dreams of full-time work on hold and started looking for part-time opportunities that would afford me flexibility to simultaneously care for my family and build up my skill-set/maintain my coding chops. I secured a position teaching kids to code at an after-school program, a job I love intensely for the ways it allows me to be creative and passionate while only requiring two afternoons/evenings a week. Unfortunately, with the high taxes in California and cost of childcare in the Bay Area, I’m not making any money at this job (in fact, when working in the late afternoon and evening, I’m paying to go to work). The economics of my situation encourage me not to work, and this is the crucial point missing from most discourse about where the women are in the modern American workforce.
A babysitter for two children in the Bay Area averages between $20-$25/hour and due to our household tax bracket I am taxed on just shy of 50% of my income (closer to 60% if self-employment tax is added). Which means that I need to make at least $50/hour in order to cover the cost of hiring a babysitter after taxes. I am not making that much teaching kids to code, and thus from a purely financial perspective it would be better for me to limit myself exclusively to work opportunities that do not require anything from me outside of school hours. Those opportunities are unlikely to be the big, important, grand, powerful positions that we need more women to move into if we want to shift the status quo.
As Jennifer Lawrence referenced in her excellent piece for Lenny, I’m making this argument with the knowledge that I am a privileged person with more opportunities and advantages than many others making similar choices. What I hope to communicate is that this is something we need to change for all women, no matter where they are on the socioeconomic spectrum. Women who can’t make the choice to stay home or be selective about their jobs are forced to stretch themselves to a breaking point. Women who can make the choice are dropping out of the competitive management track while their male peers ascend to the C-Suites, spurring Sheryl Sandberg to launch a movement so she won’t be the only one in the boardroom asking where the female restrooms are located.
My daughter is attending a unique preschool, housed next to the Facebook campus in Menlo Park, CA. Tuition for the school is divided into three categories: 100% tuition based on household income, 50% tuition for those who need assistance, and 0% tuition for families who need it most. The families subsidized by our daughter’s tuition have limited opportunities otherwise. I interviewed a babysitter once who told me she had an upstairs neighbor who physically and verbally abuses the children she cares for. These children are not in a licensed daycare, they’re left each day with a woman in low-income housing who watches the kids of other families in low-income housing. There are far too many caretakers who have no choice but to take whatever childcare is available to them in order to keep their jobs and feed their families. Monthly tuition for a child under two years at a Redwood City preschool is $2160. An individual working 40-hours/week would need to make a minimum of $14/hour to cover a month of childcare for their toddler – of course, that required hourly rate increases once taxes and other necessary living expenses are accounted for.
Women, all women, need more from the society they are forming future-workers for.
If we shifted our structure to make more room for more women to better balance their work life against their caregiving and guardianship what changes might we see? In June 2014 Apple announced a new app called HealthKit, providing users the ability to track a variety of metrics related health and fitness. Unfortunately the app was missing a key feature, a feature that would be of great benefit to 50% of the population in the age range of 12-50 years. A feature females could use every single month, year after year. A year after the app was announced to the public ios9 provided an update allowing women to track their menstrual cycle using the HealthKit app. Only 30% of employees at Apple are female, and the data doesn’t make clear how many of those women are engineers. No doubt female engineers would have been presenting period-tracking as a crucial feature during initial brainstorming for the HealthKit project. This is one of many examples starkly illustrating why it is not only ethical, but profitable, to reform our societal work-life standards to help more female caregivers stay in the workforce.
The second season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt hilariously parodies the way educated and accomplished women cope with the move from the management track to the mommy track. In episode 2, an Upper East Side mom named Deirdre Robespierre fights to maintain her status as queen bee while quipping “I have a degree in political science from Princeton, and all that wasted mental energy has to go somewhere!” and “I have a 150 IQ, but I spent all morning picking out dog stationery.” The storyline is a silly romp through trophy wife competitions, but underneath all of that is a commentary on the ways women with a whole lot of potential often end up picking out paper goods and pining for “wife bonuses” while their husbands fill boardrooms and broker mergers.
Last week I saw a man caring for a toddler, walking around the library in the middle of the day. I started to wonder who he is, what his career looks like, what his wife’s career looks like. I shouldn’t be thrown by a father in the act of fathering. If more fathers stepped up, took risks along their career path in order to make room for their partners to do the same, no one would think twice about a daddy spoonfeeding applesauce at the Palo Alto library on a Thursday afternoon.
If we keep things as they are, as they’ve been, our industries and cultures will keep losing the opportunity to benefit from the meaningful contributions of our best and brightest females. Not every woman wants to work, but for those who do, we need to make changes to our attitudes, expectations, and systems to allow them to excel in both their personal and professional lives. What we need most is for men to step up and share the load, not just the loads of laundry and toddler toting, but the work of making space in influential positions for Caregivers and Guardians to do their best work on all fronts.