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Mothers Still Face Workplace Discrimination

Elena Kagan was just confirmed to the US Supreme Court, becoming only the fourth woman to sit on the bench.  But as David Leonhardt noted in the New York Times this week, she and recent appointee Justice Sonia Sotomayor are both childless.  A fine example, he says, of how mothers are still discriminated against at work.  But more than that, he says feminists are the ones to blame.

Leonhardt quotes Columbia professor Jane Waldfogel as saying, “American feminists made a conscious choice to emphasize equal rights and equal opportunities, but not to talk about policies that would address family responsibilities.”  Just last night, as I sat in an Indian restaurant in the East Village, I heard a table of women in their early 20’s suggesting that if women want to get ahead in the marketplace, they have to choose not to have children.  What bothered me the most about that is that it didn’t seem to bother them at all.  Of prominent and successful women who do have children, Leonhardt says, “Through a combination of talent, hard work and good fortune, they have managed to beat the odds.”

As not only a woman – but a single mother in a male-dominated field – I have sometimes felt like I’m fighting an uphill battle.  I can accept that.  But what I have a hard time dealing with is the notion that those feelings should be kept secret.  That by admitting the obvious, I will somehow put myself at an ever-steeper disadvantage.  I get that “nobody likes a whiner.”  I mean, of course I do – I have a kid.  I know all about whining.  But aren’t we modern enough humans to stop viewing those who tell-it-like-it-is as complainers and instead realize women – and especially mothers – are simply trying to even the playing field?  I fear that when we consider ourselves as living in a post-feminist era, what we’re really saying is that we’re over feminism.  You’ve had your say, ladies, sorry it didn’t work out, see you back at home.

The idea that, “Taking the next step toward workplace equality probably has to start with an acknowledgment that most parents can’t have it all — at least as long as part-time work, flexible schedules and long leaves do so much career damage” really resonates with me.  I know I became completely overwhelmed when I was trying to have it all: working a full-time day job in pay cable, performing at night and being a mother somewhere in between.  I had to have the office gig to fund my nightclub gigs, and I had to keep the nightclub gigs to maintain my sense of self.  But I was losing something (aside from my sanity).  I was losing what many people call work-life balance.  And I agree completely that before women with children can find a good-work life balance, we need to admit that the system as it stands does not work for most people.

Leonhardt suggests making systematic reforms that groups like momsrising.org have spent the past four years fighting for.  Universal preschool programs, paid parental leave and flex-time are all key components, but they don’t add up to making all of the changes necessary for equality, he says.

The bottom line here?  Americans are still sexist.  That’s Leonhardt’s theory, and I back him up whole-heartedly.  Now, that’s not to say that I think every man I meet is a jerk who thinks I should be cooking him steak.  On the contrary, most men I meet and work with – on an individual level – are amazing, enlightened, hilarious, awesome dudes who “get it.”  But on a cultural level, men and women alike have yet to eradicate the latent sexism still stuck in our societal DNA.  In the same way that President Obama’s election did not suddenly thrust us into a truly “post-racial America,” but did open the door to a much-needed racial dialogue, we won’t have entered a post-sexist era until mothers everywhere are free to speak truth to power, without feeling like the positions we’ve worked so hard for will be jeopardized.

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