What to Do for Working Mothers

David Leonhardt urges policy help

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David Leonhardt pulls no punches in a New York Times column on how the economy punishes women who reproduce. He starts out with a particularly forceful phrasing an oft-noted fact: "The last three men nominated to the Supreme Court have all been married and, among them, have seven children. The last three women ... have all been single and without children." The simple fact, he argues, is that that "outright sexism is no longer the main barrier to gender equality. The main barrier is the harsh price most workers pay for pursuing anything other than the old-fashioned career path." Or, as a Columbia University professor puts it: "Women do almost as well as men today ... as long as they don't have children."

This issue doesn't "[lend] itself to a sweeping policy solution," he admits, but universal preschool programs and paid parental leave programs would be a good start. He also suggests a British-inspired legal "right to request a switch to a part-time or flexible schedule." While employers can refuse, "so far [in the UK], about 90 percent of requests have been approved." These changes won't be enough--even "in the European countries with much more generous parental leave laws, women remain far behind men," but Leonhard remains hopeful, looking, for example, at the field of obstetrics, where doctors have organized group practices which make the field much more female-friendly.

A column on working mothers is guaranteed fodder for discussion. Here's a sample of what there is so far:

  • 'Gender Is Actually Coincidental' Here, argues The Atlantic's Daniel Indiviglio, calling debate on this topic "analogous to complaining that action movies with flimsy writing are more popular than brilliantly crafted art house films." Taking gender out of these studies, he asks: "Would anyone really care if primary caregivers didn't climb the corporate ladder as quickly as primary professionals if gender weren't involved? Wouldn't that just make logical sense?"
  • 'Paid Parental Leave for Everyone'  The American Prospect's Monica Potts suggests "more family-friendly policies would be better for all." Legally "forc[ing] employers to stop punishing mothers ...  might make it seem that women need a crutch to play catch-up," but gender-neutral policies might be a good idea: "Encouraging fathers to make the same kinds of familial choices women do might be better at removing barriers for women and put both sexes on equal footing."
  • A Problem of Culture  One of Leonhardt's readers suggests the problem can't be solved so simply: "Why are not fathers just as expected to make career sacrifices in order to care and form their children? The problem is that the underlying culture has not changed regarding this assumption." Leonhardt offers a twofold response. First, men "clearly" should "take on more family responsibilities than they do now," he says, looking at studies on the topic. But, second, it seems unlikely "men and women will ever share parenting tasks strictly 50-50 ... I would guess that many couples, left to their own devices, would not choose that model. Men and women are obviously different in some fundamental ways that affect who takes on which parenting roles." The key, though, he says, is that "we don't have to worry about this ... question. The more relevant point is that we can do better than we're doing now." His answer is simple: yes.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.