10/29/2010 05:29 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

A Hostile Work Environment: Discrimination and the Work Family "Balance"

I am 21-years-old. And, coming from a well-educated American background, I have often scared friends, family, and definitely my boyfriend by talking about my burgeoning obsession with the challenges of being a working mother, despite the fact that, as I reassure the latter, I am years away from interested in becoming one. I have always been involved in reproductive rights and I like to joke that my activism is just moving down the cycle of the female life a little bit faster than I am.

In my current work, as the Project Manager for the Rhodes Project, the first research undertaken specifically on female Rhodes Scholars at Oxford and afterwards, issues of work and family, of equality and fairness bombard me every day, and the ongoing celebration of National Work and Family Month only added fuel to the fire, much to the chagrin of friends and family who can't wait for me to fixate on some other issue. The Rhodes Project looks at the hundreds of Rhodes women from around the world who have been given every advantage offered by the women's rights movement of the seventies. Our oldest subjects are often on a fast-track of "firsts": the first women to pursue higher education in their families; the first women to matriculate at their undergraduate schools; the first women to receive the Rhodes Scholarship; the first women to pop up at Oxford; the first women to be hired at whatever institution, armed with a credential stronger than prejudice. Most of them are now entering the "prime" years of their working life when academic and executive tracks alike start propelling people to the very top rungs of the ladder.

The founder and executive chair of the Rhodes Project, Ann Olivarius, is one of these "first" women herself -- in addition to being a recipient of the Rhodes Scholarship in the second year it was open to women, she was the first girl from her high school to attend an Ivy League college and the first person, gender notwithstanding, to complete both a JD and an MBA from Yale University in only three years.

And Dr. Olivarius was on the front-lines of another first, as well. With four other female students and a young lawyer named Catherine MacKinnon, in 1978, she brought one of the first sexual harassment suits in the country against Yale University, known in the courts as Alexander v Yale. The case was not decided in their favor, but the women achieved their aim of prodding Yale (eventually) into establishing a grievance procedure for harassment claims. Today, it seems hard to imagine that Yale, or any other institution, wouldn't have such a thing, unbelievable to think that sexual harassment is only thirty years old.

No stranger to the feminist frontier, then, Dr. Olivarius initiated the Rhodes Project in 2004 expecting to find that Rhodes women could be, and have been just as successful as Rhodes men. And she was right. Rhodes women excel in traditional measures of "Success" -- they are in power, publicly recognized, widely-published. But just as nearly a quarter-century before when Dr. Olivarius took on double-standards in higher education, she also is finding that a new strain of the same old discriminatory themes threaten to overshadow the deserving golden products of the women's rights movement.

My work with this Project and with Dr. Olivarius has enlarged a suspicion that developed with my undergraduate activism: the main obstacle to women's equality in the bedroom, in the boardroom, and everywhere else is rarely really biological, or sociological, or pathological. No, usually, it's discrimination, plain and simple.

The garden-variety version of anti-working mother sentiment is the expectation that women, unlike men, must somehow magically give equal weight to their fabulous jobs and their fabulous careers or else be terrible failures in one or both domains. One of the standard questions we ask in interviews is some variation on, "What do you think about having it all?" We've done nearly 100 interviews, and have yet to run into a woman who says, "Great! I have it!" Several have responded with some variety of, "Ugh, that old rag," which, after a brief literature review of the harsh realities of motherhood, I'm already inclined to agree with. (Between "having it all," "second shift," and "the Mommy track," it seems like no one has updated work/life slang since the nineties. No wonder young people aren't into it.)

Instead, I'm hearing exactly what I -- a recent graduate of college courses on parenting and public policy -- dreamed I might. Women aren't rejecting family, like conservatives predicted. They aren't rejecting work, like the New York Times' much reviled "opting-out" trend piece might suggest. They're not rejecting money, importance, achievement, intellectual stimulation, sexual activity, friendships, food, the gym, sports or the weather.

What they're rejecting is the system that punishes them for trying to hold on to a little piece of each. Why should work push you so hard you can't see your child? Why should finding daycare be so hard and so expensive that you can't stay at work? Why should your own sickness merit a day off from work if your child's doesn't? Why should a paycheck make the difference between a "meaningful" contribution and take-it-for-granted supposedly menial mothering? And why should employers be allowed to cast aspersions on the abilities of working parents, mothers in the overwhelming majority, and to force them, overtly or through the insidious power of bias so embedded as to be invisible, out of the positions they are trained and qualified for? (If you don't believe that last story, I refer you to The Price of Motherhood, an upsettingly thorough examination of the many ways American mothers are penalized for their offspring which ruined my dinner party conversations for a month at least.) Isn't that discrimination?

Indeed, the injustice of family related discrimination (FRD) is gaining recognition in the courts. The EEOC recognized this form of discrimination in 2007 and the excellent Center for Work Life Law at UC Hastings College of Law provides a clearing-house of FRD progress. Their "State FRD Legislation Tracker" belies the confidence of their home page, however; as of March 2010, failed legislation far out-weighed the handful of affirmative policies in place. And, more importantly, these were quiet failures, unmarked by public outcry from the roughly 80% of the population who are parents, whom these bills were designed to help, because we as a society do not think of parents as a "class" vulnerable to hostility and discrimination in the same way we have learned to think of women, or of anyone who defies the constraints of their gender.

The research has been done. As the recently released WEF Gender Gap Survey illustrates, other countries are pulling it off a lot better than we are. We have to stop gratefully accepting, on a case-by-case basis, piecemeal individual concessions and start demanding systemic ones as our basic human rights, for which we should be beholden to no one.

Our Rhodes subjects are keenly aware of impact of the discrimination they are facing, but they have not yet turned to one another and said, "Listen, the system is screwing us all the same way," and "Gee, doesn't this remind you of what happened to us back in college?"

But my generation is a gossipy one, and it's litigious. If I grow up knowing every 140-character event that has rocked the lives of my 400+ Facebook friends, then it stands to reason that when my peers and I start to buckle under the weight of policies hostile to parenting, we'll talk about it. (Or tweet. Or whatever.) And as the recent graduate of an Ivy League school, by the time I'm old enough to experience family related discrimination, I should have plenty of friends on the partner track who will have heard me pushing these issues for years.

What I'm trying to say is that for every dinner date that I ruin by casually mentioning to my boyfriend that if I really want to have a career (and I really do), and I really want to have two kids (I could imagine it), then according to the demands of my chosen career, I should probably have them before grad school (in the next two years?!), I'm making progress towards the next Alexander v. Yale, the parental discrimination and harassment case which will finally make employers and employees alike sit up and take notice of their rights.

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