Almost all societies throughout history have failed to finance the costs of family formation and parenthood efficiently and equitably. The vast majority of costs are born privately, by families, but especially by women who continue to pay unacceptably high economic, social, and political costs for the unfair distribution of unpaid family work. At the end of the day, this denial of full participation to half of the planet’s population restricts national economic growth and human development.
To date, many women have been responding to the triple-threat of marriage, motherhood, and masculine work norms by using the few levers in their control – by delaying marriage or by not marrying at all, and by having fewer children or no children at all, a trend well documented by Rebecca Traister in “All the Single Ladies”.
Unable to change mainstream workplaces many women are instead attempting to control their own hours of work and daily schedules by opting for part-time work, by starting their own businesses, by job sharing with other mothers, and/or by working from home.
However, each of these options carry heavy trade-offs and fall short of what mothers truly want, which is to find jobs that pay well and allow enough flexible time for good parenting. What is needed are new models of family formation and work that distribute the costs of unpaid care fairly – both within families and across society – and incentives for governments and companies to experiment with them.
1. Promoting alternatives to marriage
First, women need more choices when it comes to forming a family – choices that are fully compatible with female financial independence and public influence. If the role of wife comes with pressure to perform more work at home for no pay leaving less time for paid work, women should be encouraged and supported to pursue other options for family formation.
Alternative family models might include cohabitation without marriage, maintaining separate households, multi-family living arrangements, and new forms of short-term contractual partnership which do not carry the financial risks of marriage and divorce.
For societies where marriage, and particularly early marriage, is still the cultural norm, outlawing marriage before the age of 21, dismantling discriminatory family laws and practices associated with marriage (e.g., female genital cutting, dowry, polygamy), as well as increasing access to divorce are critical first steps. Incentives to delay marriage in the form of education subsidies to girls and boys conditional on maintaining single status should be on the table.
Most importantly in all societies, future generations of young women should feel that choosing not to marry or to raise children without marriage are both fully acceptable choices. They should be supported by public policies that do not incentivize marriage through the tax and/or transfer systems and which instead encourage and reward delayed marriage.
Governments should consider setting explicit national goals to increase the age of first marriage and childbirth to 30 by 2030 and ensure that all women have full access to modern contraception.
Women choosing to have children should consider limiting their family size to the number of children that they can financially support should they find themselves without a partner or husband. The desperate financial situation so many women are plunged into following partner death, divorce, or separation is the cause of so much female and child poverty. Limiting family size is an insurance policy against future sole parent poverty.
2. Eliminating the Motherhood Pay Penalty
Second, the Motherhood Pay Penalty must be eliminated so that women with dependent children do not face employment and/or earnings barriers relative to fathers. The primary strategy to achieve this goal should be based on creating what Harvard economist Claudia Goldin calls “temporal flexibility” and what Anne-Marie Slaughter calls “deep flexibility” in employment, by allowing workers with caring responsibilities flexibility in three fundamental areas – when they work, where they work, and how they work.
Flexibility should be at its most elastic when caring responsibilities peak over the life-cycle (e.g., in the years following the birth of a child and when aging parents become ill) and extended, paid family leave should be standard practice during these periods.
It should also be possible for employees to work during these intensive periods, if they choose, with control over their hours and location of work, assisted by the use of technology (e.g., video conferencing in lieu of travel).
At all other times there should be negotiated access for workers with family responsibilities to flexible weekly work hours, location, and method (e.g., use of technology, job sharing) of work. These flexible work arrangements should be gender-blind, meaning female and male employees with caring responsibilities can take equal advantage of them.
To finance flexibility, new schemes will need to be created and could include “caring insurance” where employees and employers both contribute to savings pools early in a worker’s career that can be drawn down as caring responsibilities peak. Governments could incentivize such schemes by offering corporate and personal tax incentives.
For workers on low incomes, governments will need to play a greater role and existing programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit could be transformed to facilitate paid leave for workers with caring responsibilities.
Most importantly, all governments should explicitly recognize the Motherhood Pay Penalty as a major barrier to the achievement of gender pay parity and set a new target of closing the gap by 2030.
3. Creating gender-neutral work norms
Third, the workplace must be transformed so that workers with caring responsibilities do not face barriers to entry or promotion. Three fundamental reforms should be on the table: 1) adoption of technological innovations that reduce the need for face-to-face interaction, constant travel, and 24/7 availability to work and reduce the burden of caring at home, 2) uptake of evidence-based policies to de-bias hiring and promotion based on the latest behavioral insights research, and 3) unleashing of women’s substantial and increasing leverage as both employees and consumers to pressure employers to remove barriers to women’s advancement at work or suffer financial consequences.
The world is poised on the edge of another technological revolution with artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual reality, and a host of other technologies transforming work. Can we harness these innovations to build workplaces that disrupt the old model of the “ideal worker” and build homes that don’t require long hours of unpaid maintenance?
If these innovations can be used to further blur the boundaries between work and home, improving productivity and reducing costs, the businesses that embrace them will have a clear competitive advantage.
And let’s not forget school and the time costs of caring for children. Aligning the school day with the work day (8:00am to 6:00pm), providing educational after-school programs, nutritious school meals, and affordable, quality Summer-school programs are all good places to start.
A vast literature now exists on how to “de-bias” hiring and promotion summarized brilliantly by Iris Bohnet in “What Works, Gender Equality By Design.” All employers should embrace the new tools at their disposal to make better decisions, including recruitment processes that “anonymize” applicants making it much harder for recruiters to pick those who “look and/or sound the part.”
Finally, women need to be aware of their considerable educational advantages in the labor market and their increasing purchasing power and vote with their feet by targeting companies that offer deep flexibility and where women hold half of all management and board seats.