I’ve been using a lot of air quotes in my classroom discussions, and I’m finding it a bit troubling. Not just because the quotes date me to the late 1990s, but also because they are inadequate stand-ins for something that needs to be said. Those gestures you make by your ears that slip out with little warning, shooting up from your hip mid-sentence as if to add irony, complexity, and intrigue. Women’s and men’s “choices” in work. Women’s and men’s “choices” in family.
Can the gestures do justice to the complexity of structurally and culturally constrained decisions?
I’m tired of relying on air quotes, but I’m more tired of the rhetoric of choice that is so often used to explain gender inequality. In her recent WSJ article, Hymowitz states: “All over the developed world women make up the large majority of the part-time workforce, and surveys suggest they want it that way.” Hymowitz’s argument is clear: Women have children. They choose to work part-time. They take a dock in pay.
There’s a lot to take issue with here, not the least of which is the empirical inaccuracy (as Julie notes in her post, the gender gap in earnings persists among women and men who work the same hours). But the rhetoric of choice, the subtle oversimplification of “want” is perhaps most troubling.
We need descriptive statistics, such as the studies done by Pew and cited by Hymowitz that tell us that 62% of working mothers would prefer to work part-time and 21% of working fathers would prefer to work part-time. We need to believe that most mothers do want to work part-time. But then we need to ask why. What is a want? What is a preference? What is a choice? Do these figures reflect the stress of trying to do it all? Do they reflect gendered notions of what a mother should be doing? What a father should be doing? Do they reflect inadequate compensation and limited work opportunities? Do they reflect the inequities between mothers and fathers that (sometimes unknowingly) seep into decisions regarding work and family?
How can these statements on mothers’ and fathers’ wants encapsulate all of the constraints on women’s and men’s “choices?”
The rhetoric of choice is powerful and often subtle. Women choose to work part-time. Women choose to work in jobs that pay less but provide mother-friendly benefits in return. Social scientists have long shown that women’s jobs don’t provide such great compensating rewards. Teachers may get two months off over the summer, but they also get a rigid academic year and little flexibility in the start and end times of their day. In my recent research, “Women’s Work and Working Conditions: Are Mothers Compensated for Lost Wages?” I show that mothers pay the largest wage penalty when they work in female-dominated jobs. They pay more of a price and don’t get much in return, at least not in terms of flexibility, access to part-time work schedules, or greater job satisfaction. Are these mothers really choosing to earn less? I doubt it.
Our research findings on wants, preferences, and decisions need air quotes at minimum. But they also need more—a real discussion among social scientists, journalists, and the public about the complexity of work and family decisions. The subtle structural and cultural forces that simultaneously constrain mothers’ (and fathers’) choices and render them invisible.
Rebecca Glauber is Assistant Professor of Sociology the University of New Hampshire. She studies gender inequalities in families and the workplace.