A different women’s history month for a different time

Given current circumstances, perhaps we can temporarily set aside questions of whether a month highlighting women’s history helps or hurts women and instead use this opportunity to empathize with the challenges that many women face as they seek out a successful career and raise a family.

March is Women’s History Month, a fact you may very well have forgotten, given current events. If this were a normal March, instead of an inbox packed with emails telling you how everyone is responding to COVID-19, you’d probably have multiple emails reminding you this is the month we celebrate women’s contributions throughout history.

But this is not a normal March. If it were, the debate about whether sexism contributed to Elizabeth Warren’s failed presidential bid would still be in the news. If this were a normal March, the fact that Joe Biden committed to choosing a woman as his vice-presidential candidate would have remained in the headlines more than a few days.

Given current circumstances, perhaps we can temporarily set aside questions of whether a month highlighting women’s history helps or hurts women and instead use this opportunity to empathize with the challenges that many women face as they seek out a successful career and raise a family.

Many of us, men and women alike, now find ourselves facing professional disruption or even unemployment. We’re juggling child care, household chores, and meals without our normal networks of support. These are challenges that many women face every day (though the current crisis may also disproportionately affect women).

Questions about paid family leave, medical leave, and who bears the responsibility for childcare are much more immediate for all of us in recent days. On our latest episode of the Civil Squared Podcast, I talked with Aparna Mathur of the American Enterprise Institute about these issues, both in the current crisis and for women and families when it is time to get back to business as usual.

Does paid family leave level the playing field?

One frequent barrier to women’s career advancement is a lack of accommodation for necessary leave post pregnancy. Is paid family leave an equalizing policy you can support if you also favor limited government?

Veronique De Rugy makes the case in Reason that government-provided leave may actually lead to “fewer women in leadership roles, higher unemployment, and lesser pay for women.”

Aparna Mathur, however, argues that there is a “market failure in the provision of paid leave.” She believes a well-designed policy could be beneficial to individual families and society:

It is a problem when people, particularly women, have to make constrained choices about whether to keep their job or to quit it, because the lack of paid time off from their job does not allow them to balance work needs against family needs. If women have to quit their jobs because they have a child, this has negative implications for the economic security of families, since women often contribute substantially to household incomes, but also has implications for the society as whole.

What about the gender wage gap?

Two weeks ago, our entire team here at Civil Squared began working remotely. It wasn’t much of a challenge because we’re set up for it: we have remote employees, and those of us who share an office occasionally work from home to accommodate personal circumstances or weather-related issues. The transition was relatively easy for us, but many employers are struggling because they’re forced to be more flexible by adopting remote work policies, supporting parents as they trade off childcare responsibilities, and having limited face-to-face communication.

It turns out, the more , the less likely a gap in wages between men and women will exist. Claudia Goldin, a Harvard economics professor, has studied the differences between men and women in the workforce, and she’s found that allowing for flexible hours (which better accommodate differences in women’s responsibilities and preferences as caregivers) will minimize wage gaps.

One solution to inequities in pay that needn’t be government-mandated, then, may be more flexible work arrangements, something many of us are now experiencing. As both men and women face similar challenges working from home and employers are forced to adjust to new circumstances, we have an opportunity to reexamine the way work is organized in our businesses, home and society. Perhaps it opens a door to solve old problems in new ways and have more conversations about how everyone can equally pursue flourishing lives.

5 more links worth your time

  1. Civil Squared Live: A Pop-Up Conversation on “Connected, but are We Really Alone?” – Join me on March 25th at either 12:30 pm (EDT) or 7:30 pm EDT for a live, online discussion about the importance of face-to-face conversation and the value of preserving it while practicing “social distancing.”  Among other things, we’ll consider MIT professor Sherry Turkle’s work on how technology affects our ability to have meaningful conversations.
  2. 100 Women of the Year, TIMETIME featured a “Man of the Year” cover for decades, until the late 1990s when it became “Person of the Year.” This collection profiles 100 influential women who might have been in the running for the title but .
  3. How Markets Empower Women, Cato Institute – This long essay builds a case for the role of markets in making progress for gender equality.
  4. Why Women Are Called ‘Influencers’ and Men ‘Creators’, Vox – A thought-provoking piece debating self-representation and sexism in the world of social media.
  5. Can Transparency Laws Fix the Gender Wage Gap?, Harvard Business Review – Could less secrecy around payrolls help move the needle on pay equity rather than government mandates for equal pay?

p.s. I hope you found this issue of our newsletter interesting and worthwhile! At Civil Squared, we are listening to you, and we want to know what issues you find challenging to discuss with others. If you’ve got a political, ideological, or philosophical issue you’ve been going over and over in your head, email me and I’ll work with my team to put together a list of articles, issues, and interesting points of view to share with you and others. – Jennifer