Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The History of the "Mommy Track" with Elizabeth Singer More

In the age of Lean In, we continually interrogate the differences between men and women’s experiences at work. Do these differences arise from gender discrimination, or do working women simply have different work/family preferences than their male colleagues? These questions have a long history, and the debate over sameness and difference can help to illuminate the relationship between feminism, women, and work. This week’s WAPPP seminar feature Elizabeth Singer More, WAPPP Fellow and Associate Director of Open Circle Jewish Learning at Hebrew College. A historian of women, work, and the family, Professor More discussed the history of the “mommy track,” tracing in particular the controversy over Felice Schwartz’s 1989 Harvard Business Review article “Management Women and the New Facts of Life.”

The issue of sameness versus difference was a significant dispute for feminists in the 1970s and 1980s, and was thrown into sharp relief in the case of EEOC v. Sears Roebuck & Co. The case was brought on behalf of women who were denied commission sales jobs based on management’s assumptions about women’s preferences, personalities, and skills. Both sides in the case called experts, who alternately described the disparity between male and female employees as the result of discrimination or of women’s voluntary cultural patterns. Some women, one side argued, were “like” management men; that is, they were willing to work long hours, travel, and sacrifice time with their families in order to advance. Other women were different than their male colleagues. They wanted to work but also wanted to have children and were willing to sacrifice advancement at work to take time off and raise their families. The case went on in this vein, with one side presenting “natural” dichotomies between men and women, such as women being more concerned with nurturing and men with work, while the other maintained that women’s historical labor market behavior was established just as much by lack of opportunity as by a different set of preferences. These arguments emphasized the economic consequences of the sameness/difference question for working women.

Against this backdrop, Schwartz published her article, “Management Women and the New Facts of Life.” Schwartz was the founder of the nonprofit Catalyst Institute, which in the 1970s had worked to help housewives enter the workforce. By the 1980s, the Institute regularly advised corporations on attracting, retaining, and advancing female professionals. Schwartz saw this article as part of the same project. Addressed to executives, the article laid out a business case for hiring women, but encouraged executives to identify female employees early on as “career-primary” or “career-and-family.” “Career-primary” women should be given the same opportunities as any male employee, but these women would have to remain “single or at least childless.” If they did choose to have children, they would have to be “satisfied to have others raise them.” These women, Schwartz said, would cost corporations more to employ.

“Career-and-family” women would be relegated to the derisively-labeled “mommy track.” Corporations, Schwartz’s argument went, could better retain women in whom they had invested training if these women could be permitted to balance work and family. Women who took long maternity leaves should be encouraged to return to work; corporations should provide flex time, part-time, and job-sharing options; and companies should assist with day care. In exchange for these supports, women on the mommy track would have to accept that their ascension up the corporate ladder had halted, or at least paused. Schwartz argued that this arrangement would help women and employers – women would be able to maintain professional and family lives, and employers would accrue talented middle managers who were grateful to be where they were.

Schwartz argued that not all women have the same desires. Some want to put their careers first, and so the automatic association of women with babies is unjustified. However, by drawing on the language of sameness and of difference, Schwartz angered both sides. Painting women as ambitious non-caregivers or as complacent nurturers – combined with the assertion that management women are more costly to employ than men – caused an uproar. The Harvard Business Review printed 22 pages of letters in response to her 14 page article, most of them critical. Schwartz’s critics argued that she was incorrect in the facts or that the facts she cited were entirely unsubstantiated and that her article reinforced stereotypes that hindered women in their professional lives and men in their family lives. In trying to reconcile opposing feminist philosophies, she pleased only male executives, who loved the article.

Professor More points to an article by legal theorist Joan Williams, published the same month as Schwartz’s article, to further underscore the difficulty of reconciling feminism and market-based policymaking. Williams took issue with both sameness and difference feminism. She argued that sameness feminists don’t deal with how differences work to women’s disadvantage in a “gender-blind” system that is based on male life patterns. On the other hand, while difference feminism values women’s caregiving labor, in doing so it may perpetuate women’s economic marginalization. Williams called for the existing structures of work and family life to be totally rethought. The idea that women choose to become marginalized on the “mommy track” clouds the reality that all workers are stuck choosing between two unacceptable life patterns that we term stereotypically male or female. Where Schwartz was optimistic about negotiating on employers’ terms, Williams thought it was a feminist imperative to change the terms of work and family life.

Schwartz, for her part, was shocked and hurt by the critical reaction. Her article was dedicated to persuading corporations that it was in their own best interests to fight discrimination and institute family-friendly policies. However, her method for advocating these approaches was to argue that it was in business’s competitive advantage to be responsive to women’s needs. Whereas she had previously been forced to make an equality and justice argument – “Be fair and good to women and support us!” – she could now use a big-business logic in saying that if companies couldn’t attract, retain, and promote female talent, they would lose their competitive advantage and the bottom line would suffer. Where Schwartz saw a reasonable tradeoff for women – getting family-friendly working policies in exchange for pausing advancement – others saw institutionalized discrimination and a penalty for female workers for failing to conform to a male standard. Leaning heavily on a profit motive as an incentive to respond to women’s needs could also disadvantage women – in times of economic scarcity, female employees would lose their leverage and employers would have ready justification for firing women or favoring men.

In closing, Professor More emphasized that we cannot relinquish the justice and equality argument. We have to protect gains in equality even in times of economic weakness. As a WAPPP Fellow, Professor More will be completing her manuscript on the intellectual and political history of maternal employment in America from World War II through the mid-1990s. We look forward to hearing more from her and continuing these conversations!

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