By Margot Carrington
Margot is a mother and full-time diplomat, who has been able to devote herself to her career thanks to her husband William, who is a stay-at-home dad to their two school-aged children. Margot was recently awarded a Una Chapman Cox Sabbatical grant to study issues related to American families and work/life balance when she returns to the United States in July 2010 after completing her assignment as the Principal Officer of the U.S. Consulate in Fukuoka.
As an American diplomat in Japan, where women face limited career opportunities, I have been able to draw attention to the rise of working women in the United States. There have been 20 principal officers since the U.S. Consulate in Fukuoka opened in 1950. I am the third woman to serve in the position and the first with children. Soon after my arrival here in the summer of 2007, I began to receive requests from numerous local women’s groups to speak to their members about my experience as a working mother. After speaking to groups throughout Kyushu, I have a better appreciation for the factors that contribute to the advancement of women and allow them to strike a balance between work and family life, and the differences between the United States and Japan when it comes to these issues.
The United Nations Development Programme’s annual report on Human Development includes a “Gender Empowerment Measure” (GEM) that allows comparisons to be drawn between various countries based on the degree to which they “empower” women in their society – in other words the extent to which women participate in a country’s political, economic and social life. It is also a measure of the degree of equality between men and women in a given society when it comes to access to economic and educational opportunities, degree of political influence, and the health and well being of women as compared to that of men. The GEM is calculated based on such factors as equity in pay between men and women and the number of women at the top levels of a country’s economic and political leadership, including the number of seats in parliament held by women. When it comes to determining the level of economic opportunities provided to women, the existence or absence of laws to prevent gender discrimination in the workplace, as well as a country’s maternity leave laws and access to childcare support, are considered.
In the 2009 United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index (HDI), Japan is ranked number ten, and is included in the listing of countries deemed to have a very high HDI. However, on the Gender Empowerment measure, Japan is ranked 57th out of a total of 109 countries. Just above Japan in the GEM ranking is Kyrgyzstan at number 56 and just below is Suriname at number 58. No other country within the top 20 countries with a high HDI is ranked any lower than 22 on the GEM score. This highlights the disparity between Japan’s high level of advancement in most areas of development and its low level of female empowerment.
It should be noted that no country has yet achieved full gender equality and that the United States is still not in the top 10 countries on the GEM. It ranked 18th in the 2009 GEM. However, there is no denying that American women have in recent years made significant strides and have become a significant force in American political and economic life.
Over the past several decades, American society has undergone tremendous changes as an increasing number of American women enter the American workforce. Today, nearly half of all American workers are women and, as a new report by the Center for American Progress notes, “they are a significant force in American economic life.” In most American families today both parents work. In 2007, 63.3% of mothers with minor children (those under the age of 18) worked, and 24% of those mothers earned at least 25 percent of their household’s earnings.(1) Moreover, in a trend that has been steadily increasing since 1967, more than 39% of mothers with minor children are their family’s primary breadwinner.(2) In some of these cases, the mother is a single parent. These developments have made a huge impact on not only American family life, but on the nature of American employment as well. Many employers are now working harder to accommodate the needs of working mothers by providing, among other things, onsite day care, extended parental leave and more flexible work schedules, and have instituted other policies to help women meet their work and family demands. Some data suggest that employers who have offered these types of benefits have experienced a reduction in absenteeism, higher retention rates among their employees, and even an increase in productivity.(3)
Some have noted the existence of what has come to be termed the “mommy track.” Women who need work arrangements that can accommodate their family responsibilities find that these can come at the expense of their career advancement as employers are reluctant to promote women whom they feel may require longer absences from work for childbirth and child rearing.
In fact, however, most American women work well into their pregnancies and return to the workplace within weeks of giving birth, setting them apart from their counterparts in Japan and other developed countries, where women usually enjoy much longer maternity leave. As a result, there is an ongoing discussion in the United States regarding the need for more family friendly policies and schedules to accommodate this new reality. And, women are not the only ones clamoring for these changes. As is discussed in more detail below, American fathers are increasingly taking on a larger share of the childcare responsibilities in response to these developments. Current discussions in the United States now tend to focus on the need to provide greater flexibility not only to working mothers, but also to working fathers who have taken on childcare responsibilities.
It should also be noted that there is growing awareness in the United States of the large number of workers who must bear responsibility for their aging parents. This has led to the growing use of terms such as “caregiving responsibilities” rather than the more narrow “childcare responsibilities.” However, in many cases these same workers are in fact caring for both aging parents and children, which has brought issues related to work/family balance to the fore in American society. As a result, these issues are increasingly debated not just in business and labor circles, but are also increasingly on the political agenda.
During his campaign for the White House, President Obama referred frequently to the plight of American working families and the need for more parental leave. Just 10 days after taking office, he established a White House Task Force on Middle Class Working Families led by Vice President Biden. The task force’s main aim is to identify better ways to help families pay for child care and expand help for families caring for elders. In March of 2009, President Obama signed an Executive Order creating the “White House Council on Women and Girls.” The order calls for a “coordinated federal response to the challenges women and girls confront.”(4) It also requires all Cabinet level agencies to consider how their policies and programs affect women, particularly in the area of work/life balance.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has talked very candidly about her own experience as a working mother and has helped elevate women’s issues in our foreign policy. She is often asked about work/life issues, particularly by young women overseas, including here in Asia. In a February 2009 speech to students of Ehwa Women’s College in Seoul, she responded to a question on the topic by stating that “society still makes it very hard for women to balance family and work.” She added: “It’s true in my country, where we don’t have the kind of support for childcare – quality childcare, where we often don’t have flexible work hours, where so many women who work full-time feel like they are not fulfilling either their responsibilities as a mother or their responsibilities as a worker. They’re so torn by it. And it would be – it would make it so much easier if there were more support generally from society and it wasn’t just each person basically on her own.”
Although the U.S. Government and American social institutions are trying to respond to the issues affecting American working families, more progress needs to be made, as Secretary Clinton points out. In the meantime, many families are paving their own way in terms of striking a balance between the demands of work and the demands of family life. In a movement that some have termed “equally shared parenting,” many American parents now structure their work and family life so as to share equally in “child raising, housework, breadwinning, and time for self.”(5) In some families, each parent is both a caregiver and a breadwinner and works different shifts such that there is always a parent at home with the children, thereby alleviating the need to find outside childcare arrangements. Other dual earner parents take parental leave on an alternating basis to extend the time period during which one of the parents can stay home fulltime with the children, particularly pre-school aged children who require around the clock care. All of these developments help underscore a trend in the United States towards a more egalitarian approach to childrearing. No longer is it considered the prime responsibility of the mother alone, but increasingly child care and childrearing are viewed as responsibilities that both parents must share.
This has paved the way for another development in American society, which is the growing number and the growing acceptance of “stay-at-home dads” (SAHDs), i.e. fathers who are the primary caregiver to their children while the mother is the primary breadwinner for the family. By some accounts there are between 1-2 million SAHDs in the United States today. In the view of many experts, U.S. Census figures underestimate their number. In 2007, the U.S. Census estimated there were 165,000 American SAHDs.(6) However, these figures did not include fathers who were students, retired, or working part time from home while the mother worked as the family’s primary breadwinner.
Although a gender wage gap remains in the United States, with women earning on average 77.1% in 2008 of what men made, many women today make a living on par with that of men and many feel that the best contribution they can make to their family’s welfare is by working.(7) At the same time, an increasing number of fathers feel they can contribute more by staying home. For those fathers with the inclination and opportunity to stay home with their children, doing so can be the obvious choice.
Surveys conducted by Careerbuilder.com, the largest online job site in the United States, consistently show that between 40-50% of all fathers would choose staying at home if they could. It is now very common for fathers who work to choose to cut back on work hours or to refuse to take on additional work responsibilities so that they can instead devote more time and energy to their children. Some might say that these men are putting themselves on “the mommy track.” What this helps underscore is that many American men no longer view their role as a father solely on their ability to make a living, much in the same way that many American women no longer see their role as a mother as one that only involves staying home to raise their children.
American parents increasingly structure their work life in various ways so that they share equally in child care and can both play a major role in their children’s lives. In some cases, couples share equally in the role of breadwinner and childcare giver by working in shifts at the workplace and at home. In many cases, one of the parents works a night shift while the other parent is at home with the children. Then, the first parent leaves for work in the morning when the night shift worker is home with the children. This often means following a grueling schedule, but it allows for parents to be the ones caring for their children rather than delegating that role to someone else, and it may sometimes be the only option for low-income families.
Other parents also share childcare and breadwinning responsibilities equally but at different times. In such cases, parents take parental leave on an alternating basis, usually with the mother taking leave after the birth of the child and the father taking leave when the mother returns to work when her maternity leave ends. Children growing up in such families have very different views about gender roles than children raised in what might be considered more “traditional” families in which only the father is the primary or only breadwinner. These experiences are likely to influence members of this new generation as they grow up, take on the roles of breadwinners and parents, and devise their own new approaches to family life as adults.
With American men and women today exhibiting greater open-mindedness and flexibility about gender roles, and with both parents seeking to play a larger role in child care and child rearing, the quality of American family life has been dramatically improved. American institutions will now have to continue catching up to these changes and respond to the growing calls for better work/life balance for both working parents, regardless of their gender.
I hope that Japanese government and business leaders and institutions similarly reflect on the many challenges faced by Japanese families and identify ways to help them strike a better balance between work and family life. By doing so, Japan will be better able to grapple with future challenges, including those Japan will face as an aging society with growing labor shortages. However, I also hope that Japanese mothers and fathers might consider how they can adjust their own work and family life to share more equally in the enormous responsibilities and rewards that come with raising children while at the same time moving toward more equal opportunities in the workplace.
- Heather Boushey, “The New Breadwinners” in The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything, by Maria Shriver, October 16, 2009, available online here. (Retrieved on November 23, 2009)
- Executive Office of the President, Council of Economic Advisers, “Work-Life Balance and the Economics of Workplace Flexibility,” March 2010, available online here. (Retrieved on April 2, 2010)
- U.S. Census Bureau, “Parents and Children in Stay-At-Home Parent Family Groups: 1995-2007″ (Table 67), availableonline here. (Retrieved on November 23, 2009)
- The Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), “Fact Sheet: Gender Wage Gap 2008,” September 2009, availableonline here. (Retrieved on November 23, 2009)