Women on the home front:
Debate over work-life balance continues

—Bernie D. Jones

It has been fifty years since Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963—and twenty years since the Family Medical Leave Act was signed into law by President Clinton in 1993. Thus, the month of February saw several notable events in the world of work-family balance: those two anniversaries, plus the announcement by Marissa Mayer, a mother and the CEO of Yahoo, Inc., of a new ban against employees working from home. This policy change only reinforced the significance of the two anniversaries.

The Feminine Mystique has been credited with spearheading the modern feminist movement that pushed more women to seek highly paid jobs and professional careers, where before they had been forced by traditional conventions to remain at home. Articulating “the problem that had no name,” Friedan explained that highly educated wives were consumed by the drudgery of housework while their skills remained unused.

Yet, the question remained, once women went into the workplace, either because of personal preference or because of economic necessity, how would they manage their responsibilities at home? The answer came twenty years later in the form of unpaid family medical leave that would become available to working parents, men and women who gained up to twelve months unpaid leave for the birth of a child.

Mayer’s comments are important because they seem to reinforce certain aspects of the women’s rights movement that have always been controversial—not only the traditionalist criticism that mothers belong in the home, but the perceptions of those who argued that elite women were tone-deaf to the experiences of other women not as privileged as they. Mayer took only two weeks off when she gave birth to her son; in addition, she set up a nursery in her office for him. The uproar that followed the announcement was not a surprise. Mayer doesn’t experience work-family challenges because she has the resources to manage a demanding job and raise a child.

Not all working parents are as fortunate as Mayer. Working from home has been a hallmark of work-family balance, because parents crave the flexibility it offers.  Thus, it seemed a betrayal that a female manager with a child of her own would deny this important opportunity to workers under her, all in the name of a misguided sense of efficiency.

Fifty years after The Feminine Mystique and twenty years after passage of the FMLA, questions remain. How is the ability of highly successful women to be in the workplace fulfilled through their abilities to negotiate flexibility? How is the ability of less elite women to work compromised by policies that deny them this? The answers all tie into questions of class and status. The book I edited, Women Who Opt Out, addresses these points and more; the authors, all experts in their fields of work-family balance, address the class-based issues inherent in these discussions. This Women’s History Month is an ideal time to propel these discussions further, as we reflect on the history of our struggles with work-life balance.

Bernie D. Jones is Associate Professor of Law at the Suffolk University Law School and editor of Women Who Opt Out: The Debate over Working Mothers and Work-Family Balance (NYU Press, 2013).

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