Recently, an older friend of mine and I had a debate over the role of women in the workforce, wherein I battled so much misogynistic rhetoric I am anticipating having bone chilling flashbacks for weeks to come. I had been in the midst of thesis research on how the Bible addresses women and was relaying several horrific stories, culminating with Peter’s view on women, which is essentially stay home and earn your keep through childbearing and don’t even think about being in a leadership role. At the time, I didn’t realize that my rejection of that sentiment would lead to a tense one-hour conversation culminating in my getting hung up on for stating “I don’t care for how many months I am laid up in bed from pregnancy I will never acquiesce to a man being my keeper or master whom I must submit to” (an assertion of my human rights and personal autonomy that was, evidently, unbearable).
To save you the torture of rehashing the entire misogynist rhetoric circa 1950 ridden debate, I’ll walk you through the key points. My friend’s sentiment was that because women are anatomically able to bear children they are saddled with “100%” of the responsibly for that child. What’s the man’s role in this you may ask? A supervisory one, wherein he makes the money and plays catch with Junior for an hour on Saturdays. But why does the women’s physical capacity to grow a human and breast feed said human chain her to the domestic sphere? Because women can face health problems during pregnancy to where they can’t provide for or perhaps even adequately take of themselves, and they need maternity leave once they have their child, add all that together and it makes for a rather unemployable person (to be said in one’s best creepy old Republican man voice). Thus, in a worst-case scenario, every time a woman has a child she is out of the workforce for at least a year, and who knows when that year may strike? Better not to roll the dice on that one and refuse to hire women who are able to bear children. Therefore, women who use their baby making skills are only good for those skills.
My issue with this is: just because women can have children and may be benched from the workforce for a while because of it, does that mean they are a walking liability for their employers? Does a women’s anatomically dominant role in procreation really translate to her being shouldered with all of the childcare duties and banned from ever having a successful career?
Obviously, every woman is different and every pregnancy is different. That withstanding, how does the modern woman reconcile her parenting abilities/responsibilities with her personal autonomy? Does one’s duty to oneself end upon having a child? For some from the Baby Boomer generation, the answer is evidently yes. As horrified as I am by this worldview, I understand why it exists.
The American framing of the standard nuclear family has been one where women are not the principal breadwinners, often for the principal reason of women not being able to hold a steady place in the workforce during their pregnancies, or perhaps even after. The modern issue that arises here is: why does a woman’s maternity leave/ child related hiatus from the workforce obliterate her career? The answer: because women have been socialized from birth to focus on domestics rather than on their education resulting in limited career opportunities; because women are stonewalled out of many career opportunities; because should a woman have a strong career it is generally acknowledged as fact that she will, inevitably, hit a glass ceiling before reaching her full potential; because maternity leave plans and child care programs are woefully inadequate; and because all of these things withstanding, women, particularly those in racial or cultural minorities, make less on the dollar than a man does for doing the exact same job.
The solutions to these social and cultural handicaps placed on women are individual and evolving, but they are also sadly lacking a dialogue. The decision to have children should not equate to a woman’s decision to not have her own career, and being a parent should not be a handicap. What are some possible remedies to this current cultural dilemma women face? Just a thought, but more access to birth control and family planning services could be a good place to start. To this my older and more experienced friend countered, “life will surprise you” with an evil chuckle. All right then, maybe make abortion services available to women?
I mean, the undeniable consensus is that pregnancy can irrevocably alter the course of a woman’s entire life and Hobby Lobby is still throwing a temper tantrum over allowing women on their payroll access to IUDs? And the lawmakers who are making the often-boneheaded laws regulating a women’s body and contraception access are under the impression that if a woman swallows a camera it will exit her body through her vagina (I could not make this up, instead I direct you to Republican State Representative Vito Barbieri of Idaho), so that doesn’t really seem like effective representation. And let’s end the stigma placed on women of childbearing age who are pursuing a career, because their personal family plans should not overshadow their personal attributes. The concept of improving/creating a functioning childcare plan for working parents was mentioned by President Obama during his last State of the Union, and is obviously a goal long overdue. Another helpful thing would be to establish equal pay, which may seem obvious but yet here we are…without it for roughly half the nation’s population.
The stigma against women in the workforce related to the supposed ‘unpredictable nature of their bodies’ has manifested itself in recurring and troubling ways. Only 21 of the Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, women currently hold 19.4% of the seats in Congress, despite being 50.8% of the population. In 2011, only 39% of the workers reported by the NCS Bureau of Labor Statistics had access to paid family leave in relation to “the birth or adoption of a child”. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that six states, Mississippi among them, currently have what is called ‘conscious clauses’ which principally serve to allow pharmacists and other health care providers to refuse to provide service or medication they religiously or ethically disagree with. The most common real world effect of this is health care providers refusing to give women emergency contraception, regardless of whether they have a prescription for it. There are also masses of workplace sexual harassment complaints and lawsuits filed yearly. In sum, workplace discrimination against women is an active social affliction and not to be ignored.
Ultimately the career choices and family choices a person makes are going to require sacrifices and are going to likely change their life. However, let’s not withhold opportunities from women simply because of archaic concepts of “men are physically stronger so they provide food so they do whatever the hell they want” and “women physically bear children so women stay home with children”. And the first step to leveling the career playing field for women is talking about it, in all its messiness and imperfect solutions.