ERH – talked with Dr. Crowley about her book: Mothers, Unite! Organizing for Workplace Flexibility and the Transformation of Family Life.
Jocelyn Elise Crowley is a Professor of Public Policy, a member of the Graduate Faculty in the Department of Political Science, an Affiliated Faculty Member of the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, and a Senior Faculty Fellow at the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Dr. Crowley sought the help of several national mother’s organizations many years ago to locate survey participants. Her proposed study involved identifying the attitudes of mothers on policy questions affecting them, across a wide spectrum of organizational affiliations and political beliefs. Would diversely oriented women hold similar beliefs about work and family policy? If so, could there be a common policy agenda that all mothers might embrace?
Dr. Crowley’s work sheds tremendous light on our belief and assumptions about these areas of advocacy on behalf of mothers and families, and gives us the nod that, yes, consensus is possible. Organizations as well as individuals, acting together, can move the needle forward for mothers, and should.
We are not as polarized or separated as our political rhetoric and media would have us believe. ERH thanks Dr. Crowley for this meaningful interview. It is important to disseminate these findings, and talk about them.
In your book and study, you call for unity across many mother’s organizations and movements for change –where the issues can begin to be “taken up,” and noticed. You propose that we lack a broader view of work-life barriers, but instead have an individualistic view of work/family issues. We don’t see them as broad, social issues. How do we get women to see that their problems are larger, and connected, and ones that society might be able to address?
In the book, I hypothesize the building blocks are already there in the organizations that are out there, including Mothers & More. Groups, organizations are the bread and butter of the movements that create change. Looking across history, movements for change are built across the backs of these organizations.
Many of the women identified with their groups, they talked about their membership with great pride and affiliation and about the benefits of belonging– they loved the friendship of mothers going through the same things.
Women in every group would articulate the issues and worries with flexibility or with paid work but what was missing was the group actively bringing the voices together. Organized groups bringing voices to speak out as part of a group are much more powerful.
The second part of this movement-making is just getting groups to talk to each other in some capacity – and not necessarily about the politics or legislative aspects of change. I found widespread consensus and support for a variety of ideas related to workplace flexibility, innocuous ideas: government actively educating businesses about flexibility, for instance. All respondents, the majority of mothers supported that. It is not an alienating issue. There is room for collaboration.
What groups did you speak with?
I spoke with mother’s groups from across the country. Some were faith based, and some were more action oriented. I interviewed women in all phases of workforce participation.
Regardless of whether the women in the study were a stay at home mom (SAHM) or were in the paid workforce — the agreement about government’s role as an educator and encourager of flexibility was widespread, though it got tricky if talking about government mandates.
One thing I’d emphasize — women in the groups were more advantaged in their socio-economic status. This need for flexibility impacts workers at the lower socioeconomic class too: they’d like to know their schedule a week or two in advance: simple, advance notice of overtime, regular hours help impact arrangements for childcare. We can talk about policies that impact members of these groups, but also consider the members of other groups, classes. Flexibility for some groups may take on different forms, depending on job requirements, yet we can also make statements about how we can impact and affect other women from different backgrounds.
A particular quote from the book summed up motherhood for me in so many ways … “All deemed they were perplexed by the unexpected.” What do you think that’s about?
What got me into this was my parent’s separation. My mother had been a SAHM. The first job she got post-divorce was a job without benefits at a hospital and at Sears Roebuck on the weekends: no leave, no sick time whatsoever. She was so scared that one of us would get sick. My mother would say to us “please really try hard not to get sick.” She would come up with contingency plans. She contacted the school nurse, and she asked if the school could keep her kids until the end of the school day if we became ill. She made friends with her, and asked neighbors to come and get us. Reliance on the social network was critical, crucial. The concerns are the same, the same as in 1977, and the worries are still the same. For some women taking time off is still very, very scary.
Working towards a world where we recognize that kids get sick and that it is reasonable that workers can take time off to be the parents they want to be is something that is important to all parents, and this came across in interviews. This worry is overwhelming. We, as a society, need to care and do something about this – the unexpected.
In one of the interviews, I heard ambivalence toward day care, especially for young children. Some women had very strong opinions that it wasn’t right at least for their children.
We need to hear, understand and respect that. Mothers want to do the best for their children. Sometimes, in the women’s view that means they want to be available for their children and will arrange their lives to do that. Even work-for-pay moms talk about the importance of being there for critical periods of time, so this is definitely a common concern. However,
many women feel they have no other choice faced with inflexible work demands and parenting but to reduce their paid work participation.
Interestingly, these mothers do not buy into mommy-war rhetoric, they have empathy for other women who make different decisions, have different lives.
The women see the intersection of their own similar experiences, as if women can be flip sides of a coin, one being like the other easily, part of the same whole, or a concurrence. They understand that it is about time and being able to care for their kids in the way they see fit. They cannot demonize one another because they know they share the same ground, with the same concern: providing the best possible care for their children, however they define it.
What types of flex do they feel is most important with respect to time-off options?
Emergency time off options was one critical area of concern, but important to the women was a move toward more flexible days and schedules. It was about having the freedom to manage their time on a daily basis, to do work in a rhythm that worked for family needs.
There was a note about “one of the only” spouses who had workplace flexibility and was supportive of one of the mothers, named Ellen. It seemed startling that there was only one example.
Isn’t it very interesting because look at Prince William who took two weeks? We don’t have this here as a given as in the UK. I agree with you. There was a lack of discussion about (this being) a partnership with their husbands. There was little talk about the need for fathers to pull equal weight. We need to look at this from the perspective of what both parents do, from a perspective of a “both-parents-are-responsible-for-the-children-mindset.”
By and large, most women had the mindset that they alone are responsible for children. It was hard to detect a cultural shift in this assumption. There’s been some, but women do a lot more housework than men. The gap has been slowly narrowing, but not enough. Men need to be part of this conversation. Men face extreme cultural pressures, much more so than women in terms of taking time off to care for their kids. In trying to live up to their ideals, being ideal workers, they get strong messages that taking time off will not get you promoted. Those pressures are more intense for men in our culture.
We need to do a couple of things — women need to ask more of their partners, but also recognize the pressures on men and ask: what can we do to change that message. To be a successful man, what does that mean? We need to redefine that so we ask men: what are you doing to spend time with your family?
I heard precious little in the interviews about restructuring the workplace – did that come up at all?
We’ve only started to have a conversation about how jobs are structured. It is a positive move, but overall, we’re still in the mindset that jobs are to be structured a certain way. There has to be a certain amount of face time, or be devalued. That idea needs to be disassembled. What do jobs really need to look like to get work done: we don’t yet have the creativity, imagination or courage to make that happen.
I also heard a lot of discussion around “trade offs” –women willing to take lower wage to have flexibility and women who felt lucky about these trade offs.
Many surveyed did discuss what that catalyst for workplace change should be — an individual making trade offs, or “do it yourself” incentives or incentives from a pro business point of view (one that assured business needs and requirements as paramount).
It is an interesting paradox about workplace flexibility because it was so universally supported as an idea; but, when you talk to some of the women in interviews about how to restructure, you hear reflected back the staunch defense of business, capitalism, business rights, they way that we have structured our society and businesses.
Women are stuck. In some respects, they are strong defenders of our current system of organizing jobs. They take on the perspective of their employer. They buy into privileging the point of view of business over the necessity of care…. the business point of view, it is a holy grail.
Though there is support, there is also hesitancy: flexibility is not something we should push for or have granted, not a benefit. No, rather, when someone receives it, they should call themselves lucky. They applaud their employer. There’s little discussion about how (to widen or call society lucky, to extend “luck” to all), no broad vision that we’re working toward: a society where all workers can have this available. We have to challenge that.
Picking up on your statement – are we privileging the “freedom” of the marketplace – marketplace values over the value of caregiving?
There is a predominant view that having jobs and motherhood is a choice – you have to live with it. For example, I have a friend who uses daycare for her baby. The baby is at daycare by 8:30 a.m. Mom is at work by 9 am. Boss knows this is her schedule with her child. Yet, he has no qualms about saying “I need you here at 8:30 for a meeting.” She has to completely rearrange her care arrangements, and baby’s life. He knows her core hours, but he has his prerogative and this blind spot when it comes to setting meeting times.
Her choices are to call daycare at the last minute, and bear the extra cost. For her to fix this issue she would have to have the conversation and she would be looked at as insubordinate. She could explain her care arrangements: these would be the baby’s hours in daycare to her boss, but there is no space for that conversation, to defend her arrangements – that her boss previously agreed to – in modern America.
It seemed to me that not many of the women had engaged in conversations about these issues with other women, in their groups. Did you find that?
That was critical. I want to talk about that. It struck me that they need to have these conversations. It would give them courage to talk with employers, and they would realize they are not alone. They would have the ability to come together and realize that they could address the employer notion that they are privileged, that business comes first. It would be a great discussion for groups to take this on – even as part of a book club around this book.
Why does it matter that there is a wider recognition of a “mother’s movement?”
It is the biggest challenge. This is more or less where I concluded the book: how do we form a movement? Half of the women didn’t really identify with a mother’s movement. But they all did say that they identified a consensus position around flexibility
The biggest barrier is that every individual believes her problem is of her own making and she has to deal with it herself. The aspect of the personal is political is not recognized. I also think that the conversation, the points that you raise, about having conversations within group contexts has to happen. This is the way to dip in, getting women of like and different ages talking face to face. Women need to see and hear that these are not individual problems and they are not unique to them.
There are ways to spark this conversation. It is hard, but not impossible. I fundamentally believe that organizations are the way to get there. You get change when you get organizations thinking and caring about issues in a societal way.
What’s the overarching message you want the surveyed groups to take from your findings?
I would tell the group leadership not to be afraid to wade in, to bring up issues and get out there. Conversations do not have to have a public policy component. We could have a movement that just encourages women to have a conversation. When we look at what this random sample said, we can realize that these findings extend to the general population. Organizations can share and disseminate this information: we can share with others that “this” is what the majority of these group’s members, those surveyed, think (for example)…There is so much more consensus on this issue. Build on it and do something with it.
Do we have the organizational structure in place to make a movement? In some way, isn’t this happening?
It is happening and it is not happening in an organized way. The fear some have that it is alienating or polarizing is false. It is not true, especially if you have conversations in groups: start with least invasive type of conversation. Decide on the needs and goals of membership. Start from there and move out based on need, and desires and membership guidance.
Where did the idea come from for this study? How did you land on the idea that women could coalesce?
I was talking Kathleen Christensen of the Sloan Foundation, telling her that that there was substantiation around the benefits of workplace flexibility, but where is the political will? The women to support it? As a political scientist – grassroots mobilization is something I study. Sloan offered a research base into the benefits, and I had a hypothesis that in fact the majority of women would find the majority of these policies helpful. She felt there would be more unity than division among women. I had an idea that the “mommy wars,” that women are at each other’s throats was completely overblown. There would be more unity among a majority of mothers. This came about because we know that the majority of mothers who are SAHMs ultimately go back to work for pay – around at least 80 percent do return to paid employment.
The media loves to cover things in sound bytes and compose stories of opposing points of view; it doesn’t do a good job of nuances, mother’s lived experiences or points of agreement. That’s up to all of us to change.
Copyright © 2015 Eva Rae Henry, All Rights Reserved
Dr. Crowley’s book is called Mothers Unite! Organizing for Workplace Flexibility and the Transformation of Family Life. Information her work and other research can be found here.
Mothers Unite! can be purchased from a number of places, including at amazon.com
To read an excerpt from the book from Cornell University Digital Commons, click here.