Time to Rethink: The ‘Women’s Dilemma’ and Public Policy

By Yasmine Ergas, Associate Director of the Institute for the Study of Human Rights

The ‘women’s dilemma’ is center stage – again. I call it that even though the impossible balancing of family life and professional life that Anne-Marie Slaughter recently dissected in a widely debated article in The Atlantic affects many men too. It still is primarily a women’s issue, and it will take some time before it can be characterized in gender-neutral terms. A recent workshop promoted by the Institute for the Study of Human Rights, with the financial support of ISERP, and the co-sponsorship of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, analyzed many of the new terms of the ‘motherhood’ issue. The following remarks are informed by that debate but do not seek to summarize it. Instead, I focus on some of the issues that Slaughter’s article raises.

Source: theatlantic.com/magazine

Slaughter has been much criticized for lamenting that “women still can’t have it all.” In truth, the “having it all” that Slaughter wants is pretty modest – a chance to be both a woman with a profession and a woman with a family life. Years ago, I was part of a group of Italian feminist social scientists. Together, we wrote a book about “time for oneself:” the idea was that beyond the “double work” of employment and family that we had endlessly analyzed, there ought to be a time to care for oneself, to reflect, recharge, and perhaps even just enjoy. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” the Jewish sage Hillel famously asked. I’m not given to Talmudic quotations, but that seems like a pretty radical thought to me – and the thirty years that have passed since the Gruppo di Ricerca sulla Famiglia e Condizione Femminile wrote about time for oneself have only made it appear the more so. Everyone may have a right to the pursuit of happiness but too often women must make their arguments in terms of the benefits they produce for others rather than the quality of life they can procure for themselves.

Slaughter’s discussion slips between the twin registers of duty and desire. As she acknowledges, it’s not necessary for your son to be going through a troubled adolescence—as hers was when she decided to leave her post in the State Department to return to full-time academia and life as a public intellectual—to want to care for him. The pleasure of motherhood is not just in the satisfaction of an obligation; one of the reasons we have fought so hard for reproductive rights is to ensure that women can have children because they want to. That desire doesn’t generally exhaust itself on the birthing table; there’s an incredible pleasure in holding your baby, and in picking up your child from school, and in being there for a first love crisis or one of those “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days” (to crib from Judith Viorst’s wonderful book). Similarly, you don’t have to be shepherding the country through the financial crisis, or more simply trying to impart some sense of how human rights law works and why it’s important, to feel that your work is necessary – not only for what you may be contributing to others but for yourself. The paycheck is fundamental, perhaps never more than today. But that’s not all. When I collaborated with the women’s coordinating committee of the Italian metalworkers’ union on a project on women and work, the workers we interviewed – all women employed in factories – said they valued working for many reasons, including the sociability of being with each other. It’s not only for professionals with options that working is three parts desire.

Slaughter asks: can we put it all together? Not if it’s virtually impossible to do both at the same time. As Slaughter acknowledges, in today’s United States at least, there’s no good way to place either having children or developing your career on hold without paying an exorbitant price. “Freeze your eggs,” she advises young women. It’s a mantra that is heard throughout the country today as eager younger women seek counsel from older mentors. Is that really the solution? Wendy Chavkin pointed out at the Motherhood Workshop the frightening dearth of information regarding the risks associated with being shot full of hormones and subjected to complex—and costly—surgical procedures associated with assisted reproductive technologies. But that’s not all: I wonder how many of today’s young professionals will have a chance to use their eggs at all. As I finished a talk on reproductive surrogacy a few years ago, a young woman spoke up. She was about to graduate from Columbia Business School, she said, but several of her friends had finished earlier and found corporate jobs. “But once they became pregnant,” she went on, “they were fired.” Although that’s illegal, her solution was not an anti-discrimination suit. “Could you tell me,” she concluded, “in what states of the US surrogacy is legal? Because I was thinking that that would be a way to solve the problem of pregnancy on the job….”

Source: Institute for the Study of Human Rights

Compulsory substitutive maternity may still be the stuff of science fiction, but having been a law associate with a young child, I know about the status of family life in corporate culture. My firm had a gym and defended religious partners’ Sabbaths, not a day-care service and a “celebrate your child’s birthday” policy. What is there now to stop law firms or major corporations from offering – and not so subtly incentivizing – paid-for surrogacy for valued associates and junior partners? $80k is a good deal when your employee bills several multiples of that figure every year. Not having children is – as Syliva Hewlett has noted responding to Slaughter – a choice that should be fully legitimated and supported. But it should be a choice.

For all the drumbeat on work-family balance, American law firms have not had to think too much about how to deal with the ‘women’s dilemma:’ analyzing the data, sociologists Daniela Grunow and Silke Aisenbrey have demonstrated that American women practically give birth on the job or else (and sometimes, also) give up their jobs altogether. That’s because American women have to solve the “career or family” issue individually. True, the Family and Medical Leave Act protects about half the women in the work force from being fired – if they ask for maternity leave and have the means to support themselves without income, in other words, if they’re financially secure and employed by a large organization. But if they’re financially secure because they’ve earned well – i.e., because they’re professionals – and they don’t want to backslide, often they will hardly take the leave. The job pressures are such that, as Slaughter says, you can never compensate enough for your time off. Instead, you do what in the U.S. we do best: you turn to the market – traditionally, for child care services, and now, increasingly, for procreative ones.

That’s not because there are no public policies; it’s because the public policies we have promote privatized solutions. As political scientists learned long ago, when governments opt not to do something, they’re actually, positively, doing something, making a decision. When the Family and Medical Leave Act passed with no assurances of income support, let alone guarantees of job continuity, Congress made a choice: to support only those who could pay for themselves and risk the consequences. That choice does not simply affect individual women and their families; it tells the country and the world what our public values are. If you want confirmation, play ‘follow the tax code.’ Which is fully deductible: child care for working parents or chauffeured limousines for corporate executives? Unsurprisingly, this is not (or not just) about what have euphemistically been called ‘family values.” There’s a powerful economic rationale for Congress’ decision. Social scientists have long argued that mothers function as a reserve work force. When the economy needs them, they get pulled in; when it contracts, they get pushed out. Luckily for the Treasury, when mothers are pushed out they disappear from the unemployment numbers: they’re not not working, they’re not looking. S&P ratings don’t move; our demand for ‘unskilled’ – often but not always, foreign – labor does. Call it the international political economy of reproduction – as participants in the Motherhood Workshop repeatedly noted, you can’t talk about the social organization of motherhood these days without seeing it as an international as well as domestic policy issue.

We now have fully internationalized and stratified ‘procreative chains’ and ‘care chains.’ Complex industries promoted by brokers and lawyers (and, in the case of surrogacy, clinics and medical personnel) as well as traffickers and more or less corrupt public officials have sprung up that organize them. We should understand how they operate.

‘Procreative chains’ are made up of providers of the ova, sperm and uteri that allow those who cannot or will not reproduce biologically to do so by acquiring the relevant goods and services. I don’t know of any ‘hard’ data, but anecdotal evidence abounds about ‘older’ women’s recourse to procreative chains. If the young woman who asked me about surrogacy is any indication, employment pressures may also bolster a younger demand for reproductive surrogacy. The key to this expanding market is that you can do a lot of comparison shopping, paying significant sums to match (or improve on) yourself genetically, for example, while economizing on the ‘gestational carrier.’ If you have substantial resources, you may choose a carrier in California. But if you’re making do with less, you may turn to India. Concerns about abusive treatment of gestational carriers abound. Personally, I have many doubts about the enforceability of contracts that compel women to give up children to whom they have given birth, even though I understand that those children would not have been born but for the contractual agreements that framed their conception and gestation and that they have often been conceived using the sperm of their prospective fathers (Carol Sanger at Columbia Law School has written extensively on these issues). But leaving such concerns aside, where’s the movement to protect overseas surrogates from exploitation? Apart from some law review articles, the silence has been deafening.

Anthropologists and other social scientists have documented the emergence of “care chains,” made up of domestic laborers who migrate in order to provide the care work – importantly, as nannies and helpers for the elderly – that enable the families buying their labor to function. These workers are often women, and they leave behind children and parents for whom they have to make care-giving arrangements. Frequently, this means mobilizing kinship networks: “labor-importing” nuclear families rely on “labor-exporting” extended ones. Moreover, the flexibility of the local US female labor force is reflected in that of the immigrant laborers. When the former leave the workforce, they latter leave their employ. The conditions of this exodus are presumably tied to the workers’ status in the labour force. That’s why immigration reform is (also) a women’s issue: many of the workers are women, and many of the employers are women. But it’s not only immigrant women who work as care-givers. Many US born women do too – and their all-too frequent economic precariousness is also linked to the oscillations of professional women’s demand. Slaughter rightly acknowledges that she is speaking from a position of privilege to women of privilege – the women who can make choices about whether and how intensely or in what settings they will work. There are many women, as she notes, who cannot make those choices, and are inevitably left coping with impossible demands. It’s important to remember, that at least sometimes, those demands entail reconciling the need to care for their own children or elderly relatives with jobs caring for other people’s children and elderly relatives.

I am fortunate to be among the professionals to whom Slaughter is speaking. But this is not simply about personal privilege; it’s about the subversion of a social need into an individualistic scramble. Today, that scramble rests on an often implicit, but no less powerful, set of public policies that maintain the flexibility of the female labor force by pitting employment against family, allow us to access overseas gestators without inquiring into the conditions under which their labor is offered, and enable us to hire and import helpers when we need them and to dispense with them when we don’t.

The ‘women’s dilemma’ is not merely a personal, or even national, problem – what women who do have leadership positions can do; how corporations thinking about their bottom lines should treat workers – female and male – with families; and what younger women planning careers should consider. Slaughter has many recommendations on these issues with which I largely agree – including that finding a ‘supportive’ (i.e. co-responsible) partner helps. Ask yourself “will s/he share child care?” before recognizing his or her parenting claims. But then ask yourself: will that allow me to reconcile a 15 hour workday with a bedtime hug? Surprise answer: No. So my response is different: I hope that Slaughter’s article and the debate it has provoked will reawaken discussion of the ‘women’s dilemma’ as a public policy matter with significant international ramifications.

I can already hear the sighs – she must be dreaming, readers will be saying. At a recent seminar at Columbia University, a colleague commented on French attitudes towards marital life: “I don’t live in that country.” The United States is not Norway or France. But it’s a rich country that daily expends vast sums that shape its social organization and impact the whole world. Some of the ways in which it chooses to allocate its resources have brought us to where we are now. Isn’t it time to rethink?


Yasmine Ergas is the Associate Director of the Institute for the Study of Human Rights and Adjunct Professor at the School of International and Public Affairs of Columbia University. She is currently engaged in a study of the transnationalization of everyday life and its implications for human rights and international law. In April 2012, she chaired a Workshop on “Deconstructing and Reconstructing ‘Mother’ : Regulating Motherhood in International and Comparative Perspective.”  Her recent work includes an essay on Babies without Borders: Human Rights, Human Dignity and the Regulation of International Commercial Surrogacy.


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