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The New Normal: Die Childless at Thirty

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When I was writing my book Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict in the late 1990s, I was hoeing a lonely field. Feminism was all about domestic violence, sexual harassment, pornography. Work-family issues were just...dowdy. Much has changed, and it's exciting to have talented and dedicated colleagues. Heather Boushey and Ann O'Leary's important new report, written for Maria Shriver's project with the Center for American Progress, was published to much fanfare (see, and the White House declared November National Family Caregivers' Month (

A key message of the Shriver report, A Woman's Nation Changes Everything, is that all parents are employed in two-thirds of American families with children under 18. Men have lost three-fourths of the jobs during the Great Recession, making women's wage work more important than ever. Our public policy hasn't caught up. Our basic labor standards, antidiscrimination laws, and social insurance policies all are perfectly designed for the breadwinner-housewife workforce of half a century ago. Updating our laws and policies offers a powerful engine of economic recovery, and it's exciting to see this entering the mainstream of public policy. White House, are you listening? Health care reform just seems like it's taking forever; there is life after Olympia Snowe.

My second reflection stems from Amy Bloom's review of Gail Collins's new book on American feminism, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of Women from 1960 to the Present, Lotta progress. But "Collins makes her strongest case, and showcases her finest writing, on the subject of what feminism has not been able to do." Numero uno example: "It is not easy to attentively raise your children while holding down a good and demanding job." True that. Indeed, as I have often noted, for women the easiest path to equality is to die childless at thirty. At thirty, women without children have wages nearly as high as men's.

What happens after that? Two different patterns emerge: the glass ceiling and the maternal wall. The maternal wall links with the Shriver report: good jobs still are defined around the ideal of a worker who take no time off for childbearing, and no time off for childrearing....Hmmm...who might that describe? Not mothers. From this unstated but pervasive norm stems the strongest form of gender bias in today's workplace: mothers are 79% less likely to be hired, 100% less likely to be promoted, offered an average of $11,000 less in salary, and held to higher performance standards than women with identical resumes but without children, according to a well-known study by Shelley Correll and her colleagues.

Even women who eschew children, or regretfully end up without them, face glass ceiling bias once they pass age thirty and gain the credentials to join the big leagues. The first I call Prove It Again!, which reflects bias that stems from the fact that women, in high-status historically male jobs, often have to give far more evidence of competence than do similarly situated men. The second glass-ceiling pattern, Double Binds, stems from what social scientists call "ambivalent sexism." In many (though not all) workplaces, women in historically male jobs have to choose between being liked but not seen as go-getters, or seen as go-getters but disliked: the Good Girl/What a Bitch Double Bind.

Stay tuned. More later on all three patterns, and a new tool for learning about them: Gender Bias Bingo(!).

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