Monday, May 16, 2011

"What if equality isn't the end point?" Thoughts on gender and work/family issues

I wanted to share and discuss a few articles on the topics of women and the dynamic of sorting through education, career, and family goals. These articles/posts address these topics with a focus on gender issues. I've been involved in the topic of women and education and women in business for years, and so these articles are of interest to me.

First is this article by Casey Hurley: What If “Plan A” Doesn’t Work? Helping Female Students Navigate an Uncertain Life Course. I think she has done an excellent job of addressing the tension that exists for LDS women when considering the prophetic counsel on motherhood as well as the counsel on education, and the teachings in the Proclamation to the World on the Family.

I enjoyed this article on Empowering LDS Women. I think the concept of personal revelation being essential to these issues is, well, essential.

That article points to a Square Two article by Kaylie Clark: Giving Women a Voice Without Sacrificing Faith or Family: The Changes Needed to Create an Egalitarian Society". Let  me start by saying that I really like the idea of brainstorming different policy ideas to have more a more family-oriented culture in government and business. As was mentioned in both of these last two articles, Elder Cook recently talked about this idea in General Conference. We were invited to “be at the forefront in creating an environment in the workplace that is more receptive and accommodating to both women and men in their responsibilities as parents."

And yet, there are elements of Clark's article that don't quite sit with me. I don't pretend to have it all figured out (and I invite respectful dialogue here), because I think part of what Elder Cook's counsel invites us to do is to counsel with others to sort through how best to encourage and create family-friendly policies and business practices.

OK, so I like that she is thinking about some possible ways to do this. That is good. Thumb up there. 

At this point, here are some of my thoughts, however, that keep me from giving her article a double-thumbs up.

First of all, I don't agree with a pure egalitarian model as she seems to. I know that is going to be misunderstood as saying that I don't believe in women being equal to men, or in the blessing of equal opportunity. I do. (Yes, I still have posts to post on my thoughts on equality in Mormon vernacular.)

Here's a preview: To me, equality should not be confused with parity. I think she is not acknowledging the fact that the Proclamation still delineates primary roles based on gender. As such, I feel like her ideas are a bit forced on the "This is spiritually valid" side of things.

I think if we are going to brainstorm, we have to keep those gender roles on the table, and dance in the tension a bit more. To me, it's not as simple as just creating an "egalitarian society" -- that feels too structured and too dismissive of potential gender differences (and/or at least the primary gender roles that we have in our LDS teachings).

This is why I like Casey Hurley's article. She doesn't shy away from the tension but rather engages it. I think it's in such tension that personal revelation becomes all the more valuable and necessary.

So, to me, there is a complexity here that a purely egalitarian model, with its associated numbers-based measures, could very likely gloss over. My concern is that equal opportunity efforts often end up toward a mandated equality that could put both individuals/families and private/public organizations into a hard spot.

For example, I am not convinced this kind of policy (as explained in Clark's article) is a good solution:

After seeing the strong economic benefits of including women several European nations have already passed legislation requiring a specific level of women’s participation in the highest management levels of businesses, (Buzek 2011).
I have always had concerns that prescribed employment/selection rules based on gender (or race) can have a serious downside, including organizations feeling coerced to hire for a profiled characteristic rather than honest-to-goodness skill, need, and 'this-makes-sense'-ness. I also worry about the impact this could have on our culture at large.

This article, The End of Men, explores some trends that concern me that seem to be a result of the push for "equality." The fact that many governments have caught on that women are capable and that their involvement has economic value has led to the fact that there are "political quotas in about 100 countries, essentially forcing women into power in an effort to improve those countries’ fortunes" (emphasis mine).

The author of The Atlantic article, Hanna Rosin, poses this question:
[W]hat if equality isn’t the end point? What if modern, postindustrial society is simply better suited to women? A report on the unprecedented role reversal now under way— and its vast cultural consequences
Clark insists that "psychological studies testing the assumption that women are better nurturers yields ambiguous findings due to cultural influences, so the argument that women are naturally better equipped for the work in the home is weak with little scientific backing."

The scientific backing may be lacking, but there are still trends and issues (and, for Latter-day Saints, our LDS teachings) that I think deserve more attention as the dialogue about gender issues and work/family policy continues.

There are questions that remain. Is it just "natural" ability or drive that should determine the balance of who stays home and who brings home the bacon for how much of the time? (For example, I've seen too many examples of women who don't feel like 'natural' mothers who feel inspired to stay home. I'm one of them.) Does the idea of "equal partners" mean "equal roles" or "equal parsing of tasks"? (I don't think it does.) Can or should "equality" be mandated by governments in ways that could force families to choose something that isn't right for them?

Perhaps I could best sum up many of my questions by echoing the question posed by Hanna Rosin:

"What if equality isn't the end point?"

I know I don't have all the answers, but I think this is a valid question.



  1. My father, who is the wisest person I know (tho you are pretty darn close!) taught me that lesson long ago--that "equality" does not mean "exactly the same as". What I don't understand is how the very same people who will agree that men and women just aren't the same think that a world should be created where-in it is assumed that they ARE the same.

  2. First, thanks for the great commentary! Second, a couple thoughts come to mind immediately. My initial inclination is, as always, that it is nearly impossible to make generalizations about what is "equal" or "right" for every family/couple/person etc. We seem to agree on that, so my second thought was that when I think about parity, I don't suppose I mind that there are a division of labors between the genders-- so long as each half of the partnership is willing to engage in the others' tasks and responsibilities as needed. For example, I would find it completely inappropriate and anti-parity for a husband to reject engaging in homemaking or child-rearing tasks because that is "not the responsibility of his gender." Likewise, I would reject the position of a wife/mother making a blanket statement that it is the sole responsibility of her husband to provide financially for the family, and he should be willing to take on multiple jobs if necessary for her to stay home full-time. I believe that parity often refers to our ability to engage in each others' tasks, to provide support, and to never see the others' work as outside of our own (or more especially, lower than our own).

    I didn't get a chance to read the other articles all the way, so I'll get to those soon and think them over, then maybe I'll have some more ideas to share! :)

  3. Michelle,

    Thank you for posting that awesome article by Casey Hurley. She was actually one of my professors at BYU-Idaho, and I was one of the few women she mentioned in the pre-law society. She's an amazing lady, and I loved the insights she shared in her article.

    I agree with you that affirmative action programs pose a whole host of concerns, and I'm not sure I'm on board with that either.

    But I am on board with an egalitarian, family oriented work environment in the sense that it would provide equal opportunities for men and women to be better parents. I think flex time/parental leave/ working from home options are great for women, but wouldn't it be great if more men utilized those options as well. Then both parents could have more of a relationship with their children and be "equal partners," in parenting, rather than completely dissect the responsibilities.

    For instance, here's a website that advocates creating more opportunities for parents to both engage more in parenting.

  4. Ladies,

    Thanks for your comments. So glad to have others' thoughts, especially because there was no way to cover all the nuance and I think the comments here are getting to that, so I'm glad to engage and have a chance to talk about this more and perhaps clarify some of my thoughts. I have so much swimming in my head, but only have time to capture a couple of thoughts for now.

    Heidi, you captured the essence of how I feel. How that unfolds in practice is part of what I think partnership is all about.

    So, kels (are you the author of the Square Two article? thanks much for sharing your thoughts here!), you said:

    "I don't suppose I mind that there are a division of labors between the genders-- so long as each half of the partnership is willing to engage in the others' tasks and responsibilities as needed."

    I agree -- I would never want to be misunderstood as advocating such rigidity that NO other model would EVER be considered. A caveat, though, would be as long as the "as needed" part is based in revelation, and not personal whim or desire (and you mentioned this in the article).

    I agree that couples should not hold so tightly to gender roles that they are unwilling to bend and discuss and council together to figure out what is best for their family and/or to refuse to do something that somehow they think doesn't 'fit' into their gender role.

    But -- and to me this is a big but -- I think a key point I'm trying to make is that equality itself could become its *own* rigid measuring stick that could also be used to refuse to do something, or to insist that a spouse do something. Equality, imo, could end up being used in the same unbending way and could get in the way of true partnership (which, again, to me is about the process of taking true principles and prophetic teachings, counseling together as a partnership, and seeking and following revelation based on what is *right* not necessarily what is *fair* or "equal" on a gendered balance sheet).

    Stephanie, I agree that it's a great idea to be talking about more family-friendly policies that both men and women can access. I'll just post here what I posted at Empowering LDS Women:

    Stephanie, I think these are great ideas. Technology is a HUGE blessing in our day (if we use it right!...requires real discipline, too, right?) ;) And I shared this on my blog (and responded in more detail there) but there is research that shows that flex-time and work-from-home options can benefit companies as well, with more efficiency.

    These are really simple things to bring up with companies, too. It seems like it should be a no-brainer that companies do things like this!

    What I have been trying to say is that I think if we are going to be able to assume the responsibility that we will be accountable to God for our choices (which is also something Elder Cook talked about), we have to be able to honestly consider the pros and the cons of potential options. I also think in the LDS realm, we can't get so focused on 'equality' that we erase gender roles all together. The more we have 'equal opportunity' the more I think it will be difficult to keep them on the table. What to do about that is something I can't quite get my head around, but it is something that I think about and wonder about and want to be able to keep talking about.

    Any thoughts on that?

  5. A couple more thoughts--

    I think that the idea of trying to pull away form the 'money is all' model is a lofty goal. I think, however, that it will be impossible unless individuals themselves believe it and live it. I think LDS doctrine helps us remember that, and yet I still see that we struggle a lot with that. I've ever heard LDS women telling their sisters that they are being bad wives if they aren't working, as though bringing in money is the only way to contribute to the well-being of the family!

    The older I get, the more I think that the best solutions have to be found first in our lives by living according to truth. If we ourselves believe in the power of the intangibles, we are more able to help others see it. If we truly believe in family first (rather than money first or personal fulfillment first), we are then more prepared to have influence on policy that is family-friendly.

    I also think that personal passions can sometimes be a gift, and sometimes they can be a distraction. How to discern, or to make sure the gift doesn't become a distraction, can be SO hard. At least it is for me...and I've been a SAHM mom for more than 12 years, without any paycheck for over a decade (I did some freelance business consulting when my kids were still in nap mode).

    And that reminds me...that we have to remember that it's not just for-pay work that can get in the way of family life. I think we have to be careful about not convincing ourselves that something 'good' is necessarily 'right' for our family. (I'm speaking from personal experience there...again, just because I'm a SAHM doesn't mean that I don't sometimes get out of balance!)

  6. Michelle,

    I agree with you that sometimes we can become so caught up in making sure that we are equal (which is an illusive, hard to define concept anyway), that we might miss the mark of prioritizing family and protecting the specific stewardships that men and women have been given.

    But I think that I disagree with the premise that "The more we have 'equal opportunity' the more I think it will be difficult to keep [appropriate gender roles] on the table." I think that line of reasoning taken to an extreme is what motivated preventing women from voting, serving on juries, running for office, etc, throughout history, because people worried that if we gave women choices and equal opportunities, they might ignore their family (not that I'm suggesting you're making these argument - I'm just pointing out how this reasoning could be used for those arguments). For example, in the Bradwell v. Illinois Supreme court case in 1872, the court said that since women need to "fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother," society shouldn't give them the equal opportunity to practice law, since that would take them away from their calling of a mother.

    I think all we can do is teach husbands and wives that they need to prioritize their family, that they will be accountable to God to how they choose to spend their time and how they fulfill their specific and unique stewardships, but then we create a work environment that, as Elder Cook said, is "receptive and accommodating to both women and men in their responsibilities as parents."

    P.s. I'm going to post this on our blog too for those who are following the discussion there :)

  7. My double-posted response is below:

    Stephanie, I really like your last paragraph. I think this is what our doctrine does.

    But I guess I'm scratching my head a little here...feels like your response is a little strong...even as I understand your concerns. But just because extreme positions *could* come or have come doesn't mean that my concerns aren't valid in their own right.

    I think we live in a marvelous time when there are many options available. But I don't think it's unreasonable to take a step back and consider that with more opportunity comes risks. And I think it's important for us to be able to talk about those potential risks in light of the gospel plan.

    And I think what you are doing is being concerned about the other side of things, which would be somehow trying to keep doors closed to women out of fear. But since that isn't what I'm advocating, I'd rather keep the conversation to what I actually said rather than what 'could' happen if someone took what I said to an extreme. (That could happen w/ pretty much anything any of us says, ya know?)

  8. Michelle,

    I apologize if I misunderstood your argument. It sounded to me like you were concerned that more equal opportunities for women increases the chance that we "erase gender roles all together." A way to re-phrase that in my mind is, "if we give women too many choices, they might choose wrong and not fulfill their important stewardship of nurturing children in the family."

    If that's not the argument you're making, please let me know.

    The only reason I cited those examples through history was because I think that same concern (if we give women choices, they might choose wrong) was what motivated those policies, and so all I'm saying is that I don't think that concern led to good policies in the past, and I don't think it is a valid motivator for workplace policies today.

    It's true that giving women more choices (more equal opportunities) increases the chance that they'll choose wrong, but I don't think the solution to that problem is to give women less choices. It's to focus more on teaching correct doctrine (which it seems like you and I agree on :)

    Again, I apologize if I misunderstood a point you were making.

  9. I'm late to the conversation but thought I'd share a little of my stream of consciousness thinking.

    I thought about these issues in a historical context, analyzing the ways my grandparents determined gender roles and home responsibilities.

    One set of my grandparents had a traditional farm life - working together to run the farm, and involving the kids in every aspect so the child rearing was done by both parents. Grandpa took the kids to the barn to milk cows and on the tractor to bring in the harvest and Grandma had them in the kitchen and folding laundry. It was a joint effort because it was focused on the farm (home) and family.

    It also occurred to me that there was no time to think about equality. They just did what had to be done to survive, whoever had the skills to accomplish the task best, did it. Because of the learning that took place in the context of the time, that usually leaned towards a traditional division of labor.

    Then there's my other set of grandparents. My grandma was a nurse and my grandpa was a farmer and did many miscellaneous jobs to bring in more money, when it was needed. My grandma was put through nursing school by a community benefactor and family member. She felt that she owed something to her community in addition to needing the money for her family, so she continued with nursing throughout her life. Sometimes Grandpa was the one at home (farm), but by no means not working.

    Looking at my life a lot of the struggle with equality is because of the nature of the workplace - my husband is physically absent and largely unable to take part in meaningful events surrounding family and home. (I'm a SAHM.)I feel that this modern change to a workplace away from home is what precipitated many equality issues and concerns, not necessarily vice versa.

    Considering Elder Cook's comment, I hope this is what we can creatively discuss - how to get back to a more home, and thus family, oriented workplace. Telecommuting is one great option.