Thursday, April 11, 2013

Why SAHMs are a problem

I've been thinking lately about the Sheryl Sandberg assertion that women don't become CEOs and senators and partners in big name law firms because they don't "lean in" enough to the system. They don't assert themselves enough at work, strive for the promotions and make their accomplishments known to their employers.

The Wall Street Journal published this article by Jody Greenstone Miller in response (there has been quite the debate), and it really illustrates my own thoughts on the issue. Women don't lean in because it requires them to sacrifice quality of life. The capitalist system of achievement is based on masculine concepts of success... making more money and being better than other people. There is little room for cooperation, collaboration, and quality of life issues. I don't know how many hours a week most business people work in order to enter the upper echelons of corporations, but after seeing my brother-in-law work himself sick at Bain a few years ago, I imagine it's a lot.

The problem is what we value. We value someone who is hard-working, so that must mean we value someone who works 100 hours a week over someone who works 30 hours a week. We don't value work that doesn't make money -- or work we don't value isn't lucrative -- it can go both ways. We devalue parenting, we pay teachers and librarians and hotel maids terribly, this plays out in so many ways. After divorces, women and children are much more likely to end up in poverty than the man in their lives. The whole way the system is structured is problematic. The system needs to be changed. But money talks. And we listen.

What this has to do with SAHMs: there was a comment on my friend's Facebook when she posted this article. The woman was talking about how yeah, she leans in to the system, but not in the way that Sandberg intends. She leans in by allowing her husband to take advantage of her reproductive labor and translate it into further success for himself (which she benefits from as well, though not in the same way). She made the point that her husband works, a lot, and he can because she is behind the scenes at home providing all the support: ironing his shirts, raising his tiny humans, cooking his meals, packing his lunch, (proofreading his business school applications). She lends this support, and in the case of highly intelligent and capable women, she can contribute a great deal to his success. By doing so, she is giving him an unfair advantage over those individuals who don't have a partner doing all that work: the women. His female colleagues who are also parents usually do not have this kind of 24/7 support. They lose out of promotions, on raises, on opportunities because they simply cannot be at work 50 or 60 hours a week (or more). I suppose some can, those who make significant amounts of money and have reliable childcare, but we give women the hard choice of raising their children or raising their salary. Men can work this much, and feel guilt-free, because that's our society's ideal of masculinity: work hard and bring home the bacon, don't worry, your wife can handle everything else. This aforementioned commenter talked about how her husband doesn't do anything to help at home, because "every 1.5 hours he spends cooking is 1.5 hours less he could be working to get that advantage to get that job to get that job security." It shouldn't have to be an either-or. Women are losing out, for sure, but men are too. They are losing out on being a part of their family, they are losing out on cooking a meal for their children and giving them baths at night and smelling their freshly shampooed little heads.

By emphasizing this division of bacon-bringing-home husband and stay-at-home wife, we are creating a false dichotomy of the traditional family that capitalism has told us is ideal, because it is pretty efficient to have men being able to dedicate their entire lives to this system. It makes a lot of money. But it doesn't contribute to quality of life, it doesn't allow women to enter into decision-making bodies and have their voices heard, and the solution of simply having women enter the masculine-idealized workforce and create a society where children never see their parents sucks too. We need women to lean in, sure, but what we really need is men to lean out a bit. And to her credit, I think Sandberg addresses that, when she talks about her husband sharing responsibilities in the home. But I think it goes beyond individual couples rearranging labor assignments in the home, though I do not think this is a bad thing. I think we need to accept that our system is broken and needs fixing. We need to acknowledge our own complicity in the brokenness.



Addendums: I acknowledge that a) this reeks of upper-middle-class privilege, and most working class people do not have these luxuries, both spouses work 40 hours a week to simply pay the bills (if their are even is a partnership intact), and b) that I have a husband at home that is performing reproductive labor so that I can go to school and isn't that just as bad? I argue that no, it's not. I'm taking on far less than many of my classmates, and I'm sure my male colleagues who also have children, because I didn't want Tim to take on all (or even most) of the household duties. I leave about 20 hours a week, and other than that, we are a pretty much staying at home family. I often cook, clean, and perform solo parent duty pretty often while Tim volunteers or writes (or fills out job applications, which is a recent task). And while at first I resented this because "hey I shouldn't have to be doing the dishes! that's an hour less I won't have to study!", I see now that this is exactly what I find problematic. And obviously, there is logic to this in some way because yeah, I have studying to do and papers to write, and Tim doesn't, but it definitely requires balance, which is what I think we have achieved this year (or are working slowly towards...)



  1. I agree. It's of paramount importance to us that Peter is at home and helping as much as possible. Even to the detriment of his career-ladder climbing. A happy family life to us doesn't mean more money. Thankfully we are on the same page on this issue, or there could be some serious marital discord.

    It is kind of annoying to think that men can work 100hrs a week guilt-free and women can't (not that I think EITHER should be working that much guilt-free, I just hate that the men can). Society sucks.

  2. I don't view it so much as women trying to compete with men, but people with children competing against those without. Very few people who started Bain with children lasted. Most of the successful professionals (professors, high-level managers, lawyers, doctors) with children I see now are those who completed their education and many years of lower level employment (interns, residents, consultants, associates). Then, when they attained a higher level (doctor, manager, partner) and had more flexibility with their schedules and much more expendable income for childcare, they had a few kids.

    Basically, those who start families early, and decide to raise their kids with little domestic help or daycare, or without the stay-at-home parent doing 100% of the work at home, sacrifice a great deal in education and career. I think the gap is only widening as it becomes normal for young educated people to delay or even forgo marriage and parenthood.


  4. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this and agree that the capitalist model is not set up to be family or human friendly.