What Will It Take to Achieve Workplace Equality?

What Will It Take to Achieve Workplace Equality?

In the Balance

American women at work.


Working women are at a crossroads. While they earned 82 percent of what men did in 2018, at the end of that year they made up half the paid workforce. “Women are not just working,” Claudia Goldin states in her new book, Career and Family. “They have meaningful careers that many manage, or intend, to combine with a family in an equitable marriage…. In all of world history, this has never happened before.”

Yet despite this temporary triumph, women’s employment suffers from a dearth of policy support and remains vulnerable to economic shock. In fact, the participation of American women in the labor force has actually stalled over the past two decades, thanks largely to a lack of paid family leave and affordable child care. This has proved particularly painful during the pandemic, as Covid shuttered day cares and threw schools into chaos. The delicate balance that many working mothers had previously established has become undone. According to government data, there were 1.2 million fewer women in the labor force in November 2021 than there were two years earlier. Women’s economic progress continues to be precarious.

Goldin’s book examines the ways that women’s career aspirations have clashed with their efforts to raise young children over the past century. Charting the history of educated professional women in the United States, she breaks her book up into distinct eras that, she says, demonstrate a mostly forward momentum. Women have come a long way over the past 150 years. Yet equality remains out of reach today, Goldin argues, because employers demand too much of our time, putting work in conflict with having a family. It’s not a problem that can be solved by women on their own. Both women and men have to start demanding that employers give us back our lives if anyone hopes to achieve success while also raising children.

Yet despite its convincing argument that the imperative to work ever-longer hours is a key remaining roadblock to women’s equality, Goldin’s book proves shortsighted in many ways. The history she traces is that of elite, college-educated, and mostly white women, so she fails to give us a full accounting of how women have struggled to balance motherhood and work and achieve economic parity with men. After all, women hold two-thirds of the lowest-paid jobs, and yet the women who make up this segment of the labor force fall outside the purview of Goldin’s study. Goldin also insists that what she calls “greedy work”—work that pays a premium for extra hours put in on the job and rewards in-person time and being on call—is the only remaining barrier to workplace equality between men and women. Straight-up bias, she argues, has disappeared. But asking employers to cut back on hours won’t fix the fact that women are often seen as worth less than men when they’re on the clock—receiving fewer promotions and raises while continuing to endure both outright and subtle harassment and discrimination. She appears to see the fact that women are still the default caretakers in their families as a genuine choice. On the whole, her book lacks any assessment of the power dynamics and social forces that warp women’s experiences at both work and at home.

Goldin divides her history of American women into five parts. Each examines a different cohort of “career women.” Cohort one is made up of women born between 1878 and 1897, who graduated from college between 1900 and 1920 and had to choose either a career or a family. Jeannette Pickering Rankin is an exemplar: Born in 1880 and graduating from the University of Montana in 1902, she won a seat in the US House of Representatives in 1916, becoming the first woman to hold a federal office. Rankin never married and had no children. That’s the path taken by about half of this cohort; the other half had a family and rarely worked. In other words, these women had to choose.

Cohort two comprises those who were born between 1898 and 1923, graduated in the 1920s, ’30s, and the first half of the ’40s, and held jobs before then having families. They’re “a transition group,” Goldin writes, that started out with low marriage and birth rates but, toward the end of the era, had high rates of both. Even though the majority in this cohort had some kind of job before getting married, few kept working once kids arrived. The problem was not just that having children sucked up their time and attention. They lived through the Great Depression, and out of that catastrophe came many restrictive policies, such as ones that barred married women from a number of jobs. Time-saving technology like refrigerators and laundry machines did mean women didn’t have to devote quite so much time to tending their homes, and so they also began to develop white-collar careers. Betty Friedan, who married and had children, was a member of this cohort, as was Zora Neale Hurston, who never had kids.

Cohort three consists of women born between 1924 and 1943, who graduated in the late 1940s, ’50s, and early ’60s and largely flipped the earlier pattern by first having families and then pursuing careers. This group married young and had lots of children as “Americans became marriage- and family-crazed” during the baby boom, Goldin writes. Some of the on-paper employment barriers had been lifted, so most of these women worked in low-level jobs until they had children. What held them back from establishing careers more consistently were social norms that dictated that mothers of young children shouldn’t work outside the home, coupled with a dearth of child care. Many of these women returned to the workforce after their children were grown and then established careers. Goldin points to a figure like Grace Napolitano, elected to the House of Representatives in 1999, as well as Phyllis Schlafly, “who made a career of trying to curtail other women’s careers” after her children became older.

Cohort four, who were born between 1944 and 1957 and graduated from college in the late 1960s and ’70s, established careers and then pursued families. Their experiences were shaped by coming of age at the height of the women’s movement, which prompted many more of this group’s members to aspire to careers. “Group Four women thought they could do better than Group Three women,” Goldin writes. Their plan was “to get on the career track first and have the family later,” and they aspired to prestigious jobs and big paychecks. They were aided by a history-changing technology: the contraceptive pill, which became widely accessible in the 1970s, allowing women to delay marriage and children and therefore invest in their educations and careers. “Feminism gave [us] the desire to work, but effective contraception gave [us] the ability to work,” in the words of Betty Clark, a petroleum geologist and member of this group.

While Goldin doesn’t take us fully up to the present, her fifth cohort is composed of the many women currently working in white-collar jobs. Born between 1958 and 1978 and graduating from college between 1980 and 2000, the women in cohort five are supposedly going for it all now, pursuing a career and a family simultaneously. They are also, Goldin notes, having children at much later ages.

Goldin’s history is a useful way of charting what some women have faced and surmounted as they became a more central part of the American workforce, but unfortunately it doesn’t encompass all working women. Goldin is interested in college-educated women because “they have had the most opportunities to achieve a career,” she argues. But “career” seems to be more of a signifier for a certain class of women: doctors, writers, accountants, and other such professionals, whose work is “long-lasting” and “shapes one’s identity.” It also entails, for Goldin, having an income over a certain threshold.

But what about all the other forms of work that are just as demanding or long-lasting but that fall outside the ambit of these white-collar jobs? Are they not sought after and central to who one is? Where does a “job” end and a “career” begin? Who’s to say that someone who works in a restaurant isn’t devoted to her work or that a law firm partner isn’t just grinding through it for the paycheck? And more important, what gets lost when we examine the question of work and family only as it affects women with college degrees and those with the most means?

Such a singular focus means the story that Goldin tells is not just about wealthy women but often only about white women. In cohorts one and two, Black college graduates “worked, married, and had children,” she notes as an afterthought; otherwise, we hear very little about women of color in the workforce in these eras. We learn nothing about the racial barriers that Black women have faced—from Jim Crow policies to the ever-present forms of racial bias today. Any examination of workplace gender equality is unfinished if it looks only at certain jobs and certain women—and if it doesn’t consider how race and class are also vectors for discrimination, ones that intersect and intermingle with gender.

This shortcoming is perhaps why Goldin has such a seemingly reductive answer for what afflicts most “career women” today—i.e., greedy work. The career occupations with the biggest gender wage gaps, she finds in her research, are those that require in-person work, require workers to meet strict deadlines, and require interpersonal (and in-person) interaction. Workers have a hard time subbing in for one another under such conditions because everything is so customized, making it very difficult to step away in an emergency.

In Goldin’s view, greedy work puts equally educated and high-achieving heterosexual couples in a bind: They must forfeit the extra financial premium if both parents only put in regular hours or seek more flexible arrangements, so they tend to “specialize” by having the man go after the big bucks and the woman scale back so she can do more at home. This arrangement benefits neither parent, Goldin writes: “Both are deprived: men forgo time with family; women forgo career.”

Goldin frames this problem as not located solely in the home or at work—a useful addition to how we think about gender inequality. One sphere directly informs the other, she points out: “Career and family are each trying to occupy the same space, and something has to give.” Also, “when couple equity is abandoned, gender equality in the workplace tends to follow.”

The solution to greedy work, Goldin maintains, is to allow workers to become seamless substitutes for one another. If high-end employers no longer insisted on creating individualized client relationships or tying high-stakes compensation to personal perseverance, then both women and men could leave work early to attend a parent-teacher meeting or detach from e-mail on the weekends if others could pick up their slack.

The problem, then, isn’t just about women, nor can it be solved only by women. Goldin argues that if men started demanding higher wages for working long, erratic hours, it would incentivize employers to limit those hours and allow everyone to tend to their family and personal lives: “For women to achieve career, family, and equity, fathers will have to make the same demands at work that women make, and they will have to take charge at home so women can take charge at work.”

Goldin also advocates for a larger set of policies: She wants lawmakers “to lessen the cost of childcare” and make it more accessible, noting that “our work and care structures are relics of a past when only men had both careers and families.”

For a writer charting the various obstacles that women have faced over the centuries, Goldin has a strangely optimistic (verging on obtuse) view of our current era. “For much of the twentieth century,” she writes, “discrimination against women was a major bar to their ability to have a career.” She points to bans against hiring married or pregnant women, anti-nepotism laws that banned hiring wives at the same institutions as their husbands, and hiring policies that explicitly said women weren’t allowed to apply as the “smoking guns” of discrimination.

Yet Goldin insists that this discrimination, which hindered women from getting white-collar work in the past, has basically evaporated. “There are many who…point to the ways women, especially mothers, are consistently robbed of their careers, pushed off ladders, and sideswiped by male colleagues,” she writes. “Many speak about a ‘failed revolution.’” She concedes that there might still be individuals who face discrimination on a “case-by-case basis.” But “to regard the journey women have been on for the past century as failed,” she adds, “suggests an extremely limited vision.”

It is possible to celebrate the incredible progress that women have made over the years without suggesting that they no longer face systemic sexism. The fact that women with MBAs often work part-time or end up self-employed, or that women with law degrees shift out of private firms, work part-time, or leave the workforce altogether, is definitely about greedy work, but it’s also about whom we as a society—including managers and bosses—see as dedicated workers and whom we see as unworthy and unreliable. If a boss is already making it hard for you to be heard and advance, it becomes that much easier to nominate yourself as the parent who steps back from work when it starts conflicting with the demands of raising children. Children pull women out of paid work, but sexist bosses who devalue their contributions also push them out.

Goldin also endorses the idea that women who cut back their time at work or take a different career path are doing so purely by choice. Women “naturally take off more time from employment and often scale back their hours when their children are young,” she writes; also, “women—especially mothers—prefer some jobs to others, and gravitate to them, even if the positions pay less.” But there is nothing naturally ordained about these phenomena, and nowhere does Goldin interrogate the constraints under which women make these so-called choices.

There is plenty of evidence that women, and mothers in particular, are still undervalued, mistreated, and generally thought of as less human. Forty percent of women say they’ve experienced sexual harassment at work. Between 2011 and 2015, nearly 31,000 people filed charges alleging pregnancy discrimination, and the most commonly cited reason was being fired for getting pregnant. There are numerous studies finding that people of all genders undervalue women when it comes to their work and whether they should get ahead. Mothers in particular are seen as unreliable and less competent. A recent paper even examined the gender wage gap and found that it was driven more by discrimination than by women pursuing different career paths. None of this has to be written down in laws explicitly barring women from certain professions for it to prevent them from achieving equality with men.

Covid has presented us with an opportunity to reassess the workplace. But if we don’t grapple with all of that sexism at the same time that we examine workplace structures, we’ll end up no better off on the other side of the crisis, whenever it comes. Covid, Goldin tells us, provided “an alarming magnifying glass” on the unequal burden of family demands that falls on women and how they conflict with paid work. It also rearranged many workplaces, particularly white-collar ones, as employees worked from home. “Working from home can still mean that the employee is presumed to be available at odd hours, and available whenever the client or the manager wants a job done,” Goldin notes. But “there is always the glimmer of hope that our gender norms will be altered by our compulsory trial with at-home work, and that the penalty for not going into the office will decrease.”

More workplace flexibility, and men who are able to carve out time to care for their children, would represent meaningful progress. But that wouldn’t end women’s quest for equality inside and outside of their homes. The most glaring omission in Goldin’s book is an analysis of power. She doesn’t wrestle with the dynamics that keep things as they are or the struggle it would take to change them—to turn the Covid experimentation with flexible work into lasting workplace progress, to ensure that people aren’t at the whims of their bosses’ desire for long hours, to liberate low-wage women from sexual harassment and ever-fluctuating schedules and pay. She claims that changes that have benefited women in, as one example, the pharmacy field weren’t due to “revolution, social movement, or upheaval.” Yet for most women, it will take these very forces to achieve any real and lasting transformation. Without mass action and solidarity, women’s economic equality will continue to be transitory and fragile.

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