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Opt-in Movement Great For Upper-Middle Class Moms. But The Rest Need Options, Too

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On Mother's Day, the Washington Post published an article, "Movement to keep moms working is remaking the workplace." The article celebrates women who are part of the "opt-in movement," in which "many mothers are willing to give up income if that means taking control of their schedules, and, perhaps most important, doing meaningful, challenging work in their chosen professions rather than what they see as the less interesting work of the often-stigmatized 'mommy track.'"

For many women, however, giving up income for flexible work hours is not an option. Instead, the real need to keep moms working is not simply for upper-middle class, well-educated moms, but for mothers with less education, fewer opportunities, and less supportive communities. Those with the most education are the most likely to be labor force participants and the least likely to be unemployed. They are also the least likely to quit work after having a child. Consider the following statistics from 2009:

For women age 25 and over with less than a high school diploma, 34 percent were labor force participants; high school diploma, no college, 53 percent; some college, but no degree, 62 percent; associate degree, 72 percent; and bachelor's degree or higher, 73 percent.

The Washington Post article is representative of much of the work in this area: While the headline would lead one to believe the story would focus on all working mothers, the article is really about a select group of women who are highly educated professionals. The news media show a disproportionate interest in professional women who leave the workforce to become full-time mothers. This article adds a new twist on the old story; it focuses on women who leave, but then re-enter on terms that respect their goals for work-family balance.

More generally, issues of work-family balance are often addressed only in terms of the interests of those same women. (Men are less likely to leave the workplace.) The most frequently mentioned proposals -- creating more and better part-time work, shorter work hours, and greater workplace flexibility -- are proposals that are most useful for those who are financially able to trade off money for family time.

As is perhaps too obvious to mention, most women are not professionals; they are not lawyers, executives, professors, or others with advanced degrees. The median weekly wage for women in 2009 was $657. The most common profession for women is as secretaries or administrative assistants, followed by registered nurses, elementary and middle school teachers, and cashiers.

Of course all women and men, including high-paid professionals, benefit from improved recognition of the need to balance their work and family demands and from new strategies designed to facilitate this balance. Yet our focus, along with out policy proposals, should be on those who have fewer options and resources, not just those with the most.

Indeed, what flexibility means for low-wage working women is profoundly different from that available to women in higher paying jobs. First, they can little afford to trade off income for family time. Second, they are subject to both "schedule rigidity and schedule instability," according to a 2011 report from the Center on WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of Law. They must be at work during their scheduled hours, but those hours may change on a weekly basis. Arranging for child or elder care thus becomes even more difficult with schedules subject to constant change. In fact, women with less than a high school diploma are the least likely to report having a flexible work arrangement.

The economic case for flexibility and accommodation in work scheduling for hourly and low-wage employees is strong. Many employers, ranging from Kraft Foods to the U.S. government, are already implementing some form of workplace flexibility for hourly workers. More employers should. Evidence about practices that include flexible work schedules and more employee control over formal scheduling as well as unscheduled absences for family reasons shows that both employers and employees benefit.

Developing compressed work weeks, promoting job-sharing, requiring employees to be present only during core times of the day or week, and establishing clear policies on family leave time with adequate back-up support are all potential strategies that can provide any employee, ranging from receptionists to cashiers, with a more family-friendly workplace. Attention to the needs of lower wage-women must also go beyond reforming the workplace to include policies such as paid family leave and restructured school days.

Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0.

Correction: A previous version of this post named Naomi Klein, not Naomi Cahn as a co-author. This has been corrected and we regret the error.