Gender Policies

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(HOST) These days, most women are as active in the workplace as men, but commentator Libby Sternberg says that one-size-fits-all policies based on the working patterns of men don’t necessarily address the needs of working women.

(STERNBERG) When I was a little girl, my sister and I used to help our mother with spring cleaning. We’d wash the kitchen walls, for example, and we’d help change the livingroom rug from a heavy patterned wool to a tropical woven mat in preparation for Baltimore’s hot summers.

Does anybody wash walls any more? Do they change rugs with the seasons? And how many women stay at home full-time while their children are young anyway? In Vermont, not many. Around 75 percent of all women with children under the age of six are working. Many women work, of course, because they want to. But a large percentage work because two incomes are necessary in today’s economy. What kinds of family-friendly policies will benefit these women?

Neil Gilbert, a professor of social welfare at the University of California at Berkeley, has written a provocative article on this topic entitled “What do Women Really Want?” for the Winter issue of The Public Interest magazine. (In the interest of full disclosure, let me reveal that I’m the proud Mom of the managing editor of that publication.) Gilbert argues that policy makers almost always look at the male career model when designing family-friendly policies like subsidized child care as well as paid family leave. This model “is informed by male work patterns,” Gilbert writes, “which…involve a seamless transition from school to the paid work force along with a drive to rise as high as possible.”

But many women do not follow the male-centric career model. They might spend five to ten years at home raising children – perhaps working part-time schedules or from home – and then re-enter the labor force full-time. They don’t use “free child care” which, in fact, is extravagantly expensive when it comes to the tax bills families must pay to support them.

Women who do not use the male-centric model would benefit from more creative family-friendly policies, argues Professor Gilbert. Finland and Norway, for example, started a system over five years ago that actually pays cash benefits to parents who opt to stay home with young children. Professor Gilbert also suggests contributions to pension benefits for stay-at-home parents and even a tuition benefit program akin to the GI Bill for parents – mostly mothers – who are getting ready to re-enter the workforce after years of staying at home.

Policy makers who are interested in benefiting families might want to take a look at Professor Gilbert’s ideas in order to design family-friendly policies that work for both male and female-centered career choices.

This is Libby Sternberg from Rutland.

Libby Sternberg is an author and freelance writer who’s active in education issues. She spoke from our studio at Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester.

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