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THE WORKPLACE JUST DOESN'T WORK FOR WOMEN

Surveys showing that men suffer stress from juggling work and family responsibilities lead one observer to conclude that "role strain" is a fact of life for fathers as well as mothers.

Polls also show that men, as much as women, would like to cut back on their work hours. But few men are dropping out of the work force the way women seem to be, and if they were they would cause even more of an uproar than Barbara Barnes set off.

The "I told you sos" clacked across the land when Ms. Barnes left her high-powered post with PepsiCo to spend more time with her family. Whatever her motives for wanting time out, she became the unwilling champion of stay-at-home moms and unwitting bane of women still trekking career paths.

Even before Ms. Barnes made herself a symbol of the growing work/family conflicts, the media were announcing that working women can't "have it all." When a workplace, locked into the 1950s lifestyle, cannot or will not accommodate the dual-career family, it is the woman who must be sacrificed -- at least in those families affluent enough to sustain such decisions.

The time parents spend with their children has diminished by about one-third in the past 30 years, the period in which women have achieved their greatest success in the workplace. Fathers have not increased their participation in family life enough to compensate for that, and their reluctance to take advantage of the few family-friendly policies that companies provide is well-documented.

That, plus the burden that corporate American puts on mothers, is forcing them to concur with the book title that proclaims, "Work doesn't work anymore." In any event, the workplace sure doesn't work.

Women have accepted responsibility for the fact that they are not fulfilled by their careers, that there is something lacking in their lives. When maternal urges are stifled in a workplace designed by and for men, the only answer for some is to drop out or become part-timers. Experts, mostly those who have gone the resignation route, are quick to caution that this decision is not forever. Women will want to go back to their careers, but, of course, with lowered expectations.

Some women staying the course in their jobs predict that Ms. Barnes will be back, because few women want to spend all their time with their children. Others fear that her actions may taint the image of managerial women who want to be seen as committed and devoted to their jobs as men.

The resignation of one high-powered executive will do less damage to career women than the spreading perception that women en masse will abandon careers in favor of mothering and that by doing that will be preserving the family as well as fulfilling themselves.

Where does that leave the single parent, or the married mother whose family needs her income, or the woman who just plain likes her job?

Stephanie Coontz, author of "The Way We Really Are," argues that mothers are not abandoning the work force. They don't want to even if they can afford to, she says. Through most of this century women joined the labor force in rising numbers, but participation rates dropped during the child-raising years. By 1990, however, the rates stopped dipping for that age group, and "today fewer women leave their jobs while their children are very young."

According to Ms. Coontz, we need "to reorganize work to make it more compatible with family life" and we need to "reorganize family life to make sure that all members share in the work needed to sustain it." That's how it has worked historically, she says.

Ms. Coontz argues that in today's co-provider families, men as well as women find their primary emotional, personal and spiritual gratification in the family rather than on the job, and both are making trade-offs. Men, however, are more likely to succumb to workplace pressures, and Ms. Coontz says the "stalled revolution" has left women the family caretakers.

The lackluster performance of business in accommodating families leads Ms. Coontz to advocate "public investment in social health and well-being." There is a precedent, she argues. In the early 19th century, government funded a transportation system essential for a market economy. "In today's transition to a co-provider family system, child care, paid parental leaves and family-friendly work policies are equally vital social and economic investment as were canals and railroads then."

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