‘A Woman’s Nation’ reveals a workplace transformation

There is no small irony embedded in the subtitle of the Shriver Report on women’s inroads into the American workforce: “A woman’s nation changes everything.”

Panelists from 'A Woman's Nation'

'A Woman's Nation' panelists, clockwise from upper left: Ann O'Leary, Maria Echaveste, Heather Boushey and Mary Ann Mason.

In fact, not nearly enough has changed, even though women now make up half of all U.S. workers, a point that’s central to the report, its ironic title, and the five experts who illuminated its findings during a recent Boalt Hall panel discussion put on by the Berkeley Center for Health, Economic and Family Security (CHEFS).

Government, corporate and institutional policies — as well as cultural attitudes — on everything from child care to Social Security to family leave to work schedules are mired in the past, as if the typical American family were still the kind where one parent works and the other stays home to take care of the kids, according to both the report and the panel.

“I get the impression sometimes that policy makers wish women would just go home,” observed panelist Heather Boushey. A senior economist with the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C.-based progressive think tank, Boushey was a major contributor to the report, a collaboration between CAP and a team working with Maria Shriver, a longtime journalist who has been California’s first lady since 2003.

Presenting just a sampling of the report’s phalanx of supporting statistics, Boushey made the case that women’s increased presence in the workforce over the last 30 years has been “perhaps the greatest transformation of our times.” Women now make up 49.9 percent of all workers, a dramatic shift from just one generation ago when just one-third of workers were women.

“Yet we as a nation haven’t really confronted what these changes mean … ” Boushey said, summarizing the conclusions of the report itself.

The Shriver report is an effort to spark that confrontation and to stimulate a national conversation about what’s needed next: nothing less than the transformation of society itself — business, government, health care and educational institutions, culture, the media and the faith communities — to meet the needs of the workforce revolution.

Appearing on the Feb. 11 panel with Boushey were three Berkeley Law faculty who also contributed to the report: lecturer Ann O’Leary, who is executive director of CHEFS as well as a senior CAP fellow; senior lecturer Maria Echaveste, who was a domestic policy adviser in the Clinton administration; and professor Mary Ann Mason, who is faculty co-director of CHEFS and former dean of Berkeley’s Graduate Division.

In addition, assistant law professor Melissa Murray offered her perspective as a family law expert and the only panelist who was not involved in writing the report — though her life, as a working woman, is represented by it.

Shriver dreamed up the idea of a status report on women’s employment and contributed the view from the ground up — interviews with men and women in a handful of metropolitan areas, including Los Angeles and Silicon Valley. CAP studied government and institutions. And the Rockefeller Foundation kicked in with money for a poll that revealed support among men as well as women for things like better child care and family leave policies.

The poll suggests that people are out ahead of their institutions in welcoming policy shifts to support the new reality. For instance, more than 80 percent of men and women polled agreed that businesses that don’t adapt to the needs of modern families risk losing good workers.

“We need to take this out of the realm that these are just women’s issues,” Boushey said.

Higher education, while schooling women as professionals and breadwinners, is far from immune to the problem, Mary Ann Mason told the Berkeley Law audience.

Although women now earn well over half of all bachelor’s and graduate degrees, they’re still paid just 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man, she said. In law firms, women partners earn just 68 cents on the dollar.

Part of the reason for that is that the higher paying jobs are in science and technology — and women students, Mason said, drop out of the science education pipeline because they know it leads to jobs that don’t offer maternity leave, child care and the kinds of flex-time needed to balance family and career.

These kinds of policies are essential to keeping women in science, Mason said.

The lack of any national child care policy, or corporate support for child care, affects not just the women who have entered the workforce, Echaveste pointed out.

“Who’s taking care of their children?” she asked, answering the question herself: Immigrant women.

“They are absolutely essential,” Echaveste said, but they are paid poorly, and usually lack Social Security and health benefits, and have no job security. But no one talks about these issues.

“We can have a huge debate about the ethical treatment of animals — and absolutely nothing about these workers,” Echaveste said.

Rights for workers at all levels is a critical need identified in the report. O’Leary outlined a few more:

Paid family leave is one. The Family and Medical Leave Act covers only half the workforce, O’Leary said, because it applies only to big employers. And regardless, low-wage workers can’t afford to take unpaid time off.

Any national policy on child care would be an improvement, she said, as well as a law making it illegal to fire pregnant women. And rules on scheduling are needed to prevent the Walmarts and Starbucks of the world from using what they call “optimal scheduling” — where schedules change from week to week, depending on need — and mandatory overtime, which complicate efforts to arrange care for dependents.

Much of the discussion revolved around child care as women’s responsibility — raising a question from the audience about why the report framed the issue that way.

“There is no other way to frame it because women have the children and … provide the greater amount of caregiving,” Echaveste responded. The report starts with that premise and says: “This is our current reality. So what do we do about it?”

The point was raised that while many European cultures see child care as society’s responsibility, the United States does not.

“It costs more to send a child to daycare than to a public school or college,” Boushey said. “We don’t expect families to pay the full cost” of their children’s educations, she added, so “why do we with child care?”

And how are the children doing with their mothers at work, asked another in the audience.

“I think, as a liberal, we ought to be asking tough questions about single parents, the absence of fathers, the absence of support,” answered Echaveste. “But many of us have been unwilling to raised those questions.”

The report, Boushey reminded the group, aims to start the national conversation about all the issues raised by women in the workforce.

“People still don’t acknowledge the problem,” she said.