Work sucks? Blame her!

Are women responsible for America's workaholism?

By Catherine Price
Published March 25, 2008 1:35PM (EDT)

Have you worked late in the past week? Do you spend most Saturdays at your desk? Have you missed out on your kids' sports games/pageants/childhoods because you needed to put in more time at the office? If so, it's probably women's fault.

Or at least that's the argument put forth in an editorial in the Boston Globe. Titled "Working Women, Where Did We Go So Wrong?" it asserts that the reason Americans work so goddamned much is that feminists didn't do a good enough job of redefining the workplace. "It wasn't supposed to turn out this way," writes author Monique Doyle Spencer. "We were supposed to demand equal pay ... We were supposed to 'smarten' the workday ... We were supposed to create part-time opportunities for smart, professional moms and dads ... We were supposed to see if America would put its money where its mouth is: that family matters."

I can't help thinking that Spencer is leaving some stuff out. I thought that feminists were supposed to cure cancer, provide the world with fresh drinking water and eliminate malaria in Africa -- not to mention develop mind-reading technology to help people remember where they left their car keys and invent lipstick that never, ever smudges on your teeth. Gloria, Betty, how could you let us down!?

Because seriously, let's take a look at Spencer's argument: She claims that when women started going to jobs in male-dominated professions, they tried to act -- and perform -- like the guys, but often got paid less because of residual sexism that placed more value on a man's work than a woman's. But that's not the problem -- the problem, according to Spencer, is that women didn't then stand up for themselves and ask for raises. Instead, they worked more. And didn't get raises. So everyone had to work more. And then their husbands died and their children got packed off to Africa, where they are currently at great risk of contracting mosquito-borne diseases unless feminists do something to save them.

Maybe not that last part -- but basically Spencer's point boils down to the idea that when women fought for their rights to enter male-dominated workplaces, they should have also done more negotiating on behalf of their families. But instead, not only did they try too hard to fit into the male working paradigm, leaving their kids in the dust, but they actually upped Americans' work standards, so that today, men and women are all working more than they used to, and family life is suffering as a result. Here's how Spencer describes the life of a typical working woman:

"This woman's road in life has been dour. She does not know she is insecure. She really believes she has to work nights, even though she is perpetuating a system that is terrible for her children. As she became more bitter, she made everybody work longer hours, called more staff meetings where she did all of the talking, insisted that the boss should see her department working the latest. Plus nobody in the neighborhood can stand her anymore, because she thinks that stay-at-home moms are her free babysitters. She calls the seven hours when she leaves her kids with you a 'play date.'"

Oh my God! Spencer's right -- I totally know people like that! Except wait a second. They're guys.

Which brings me to this last point: I definitely buy the idea that we're working harder than we used to -- or should -- and I agree that women should be more aggressive in asking for raises. But I find it hard to place the blame for America's workaholism on feminists. If you're trying to get a job in a workplace where people like you don't normally have jobs, your first priority is probably to make sure you get hired. Doing so requires convincing the employer that you're just as good as the men you're working with -- or, ideally, better. So you work really hard. Otherwise, you're "just a woman" and are likely to be valued less than a man -- and potentially fired. That is not really an environment in which I, at least, would feel comfortable arguing for extra maternity time.

If we're placing the blame here (which I don't think is a good idea, but just as a thought exercise), wouldn't it make more sense to put it on the guys? I mean, they were the ones with the power, and they were no doubt aware that if their wives got jobs, they wouldn't be home with the kids. Wouldn't it make sense, then, for men to have been vociferous advocates of flexible work schedules and more family time? I'm a strong believer in the idea that families do best when both parents are involved -- so it seems a little strange to me to argue that women bear all the responsibility for their families' emotional welfare and that men's only purpose is to bring home the bacon. That's not fair to either gender.

Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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