It's National Work-Family Month and, while we have a ways to go to making work-family balance a reality for all, I also think that we have a lot to celebrate this month. Women's portion of the labor force hit an all-time high in the last decade and it remains at historically high levels today. And women's employment has helped to bolster families in these hard economic times.
One of the reasons that last month's Sarah Jessica Parker movie, I Don't Know How She Does It, didn't make it at the box office is that the story is less relevant than it was ten years ago when the book came out. While women (and, increasingly, men) certainly feel the strains of balancing work and family, they are also much more likely to be "doing it" these days -- nearly three quarters of mothers with children under 18 work today.
I recently conducted eighty interviews with women living in New York City to investigate how they made decisions about work and family and what I found may surprise you. Nearly half of the women I met worked steadily full-time through their 20s and 30s, prime child-bearing and rearing years (and the majority of these women also found time to have children). Another 16 percent worked part-time after having kids and another quarter wanted to find stable full-time work, but struggled to do so. Only ten percent of my sample left work immediately after having children.
Women who stayed employed full-time found work provided unexpected benefits for their families. Women are now gaining higher education rates than men, so while they were rarely paid as well as their spouses, women often were in jobs that had better social networks. I met teachers, administrators and secretaries who were married to firefighters, mechanics, and prison guards. These women explained that their jobs helped them gain access to opportunities, like internships and information about good colleges, that their husband's jobs couldn't give them.
Women who worked steadily also felt more financially secure than their peers and could provide for families when times got tough. One of my respondents explained to me that even the best laid plans could go awry -- husbands could be fired or fall ill -- and continued work guarded against the unexpected.
While women are working more, there remains considerable diversity in their work-family experiences. Those of us championing Work-Family Month should recognize that this diversity demands a range of policy recommendations. Better family leave and sick day policies, as well as increased workplace flexibility, would benefit the women who stayed employed full-time. An increase in the minimum wage and universal daycare would most benefit the low-income women who wanted to work full-time but struggled to remain employed. Workplace policies that allow job-sharing or temporary part-time employment would accommodate the needs of mothers and father with young children. And re-entry programs and a stronger safety net would benefit those mothers who want to remain at home while their children are young.
My respondent, Virginia, put it best: "We all work and strive, because everyone wants the best for their kids." If we take her words to heart, we can find the political will to implement these policies that will benefit our nation's children and their families.
Sarah Damaske is an assistant professor of Labor Studies & Employment Relations and Sociology at the Pennsylvania State University and author of For the Family? How Class and Gender Shape Women's Work (Oxford University Press, October 2011).