Jill Filipovic

On “Balance”

[The following is an email sent out over an NYU Law listserve. It references an event sponsored by a religious organization at NYU, which featured a white, male, Mormon attorney with five children and a stay-at-home wife speaking about balancing work and family.] Rebecca writes, "Nor does it address the fact that, whether you intend to or not, when you say that Mr. Belnap can't speak for women on the work-life balance issues, you implicitly depict the issue as mainly a woman's issue. Work-life is an issue neutral to gender and neutral to having children or 'family'. And while women can debate that the issues disparately affect us, to claim dominion over the entire debate departs from a debate about equality. Everyone has a right to talk about the issues of work-life balance, and the more they do, issues that affect women disparately in the workplace may be more equalize. " While it may be true that everyone has a right to talk about issues of work-life balance, and that both men and women may seek balance in their professional lives, the practical reality is that it is women who bear the brunt of this "balance." Even when both partners have full-time careers, women generally do far more work in the domestic sphere than their male partners do. They spend more time with their children, and more time cooking and cleaning. This is not a gender-neutral issue, and to assert as much denies the realities that most women in this country live. That, of course, isn't to say that this is strictly a women's issue, but it is crucial to point out that when we talk about balancing work and family life, we have to recognize that married women who work full-time actually work far more hours per week then their husbands do -- it's just that much of their work is unpaid. We also have to recognize that men who work full-time and still have families don't do so without a gendered support system behind them. Many haves wives who stay at home and care for the children and the house; others hire domestic workers, almost all of whom are female. There are a lot of fundamentally gendered issues when it comes to domestic work, and they intermix with class issues -- if both partners work and the housework isn't getting done, the solution is often to hire a nanny or a housekeeper, who are usually female. That's a women's issue too, and not one that's often honestly addressed by the professional class, be they male or female. Largely because many men are simply unwilling to do their share of the housework and childrearing, or ignorant as to how much they're actually doing (even in families where both partners perceive to be sharing the housework equally, more often than not the female partner still does more), the careers of professional people are enabled by an entire class of women who tend to be poor, brown, and have little access to the kinds of privileges that their employers and their employers' children do. Call me cynical, but I don't foresee these issues being addressed by a rich white dude who can afford to have six kids because he has a built-in support system in the form of his wife. At the end of the day, it is much harder for female attorneys to balance work with family, largely because women are still expected to be the primary care-takers of their homes and their families. A male attorney with six kids and a wife who can take care of them full-time probably doesn't have a whole lot to say about the challenges that professional women face. And professional women do face far more challenges when it comes to work-life balance than professional men do. I wish it were a gender-neutral issue, but in practice, it simply isn't. I'm sure that Mr. Belnap will have a lot to say, and he certainly has a right to share his experiences. But it's dishonest to present this as a discussion which will be representative of the experience of professional people in general. And it is insulting to professional women everywhere -- and the women at this law school -- that the only speaker addressing the issue of work-life balance is one who has access to all the traditional privileges which have allowed (white) men to dominate this country's professional sphere since just about ever.

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