Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Gendered Assumptions about Work

I have written recently about subtle assumptions many in our culture have that men work to provide for their families while women’s paychecks are not necessary.  The common, often unspoken assumption is that women’s paychecks simply provide additional luxuries beyond what someone else (i.e., the primary breadwinner) provides. 

Previously I mentioned that I have particularly noticed that such assumptions are harbored by men who are the primary or sole breadwinner of their own families.  I lamented that such individuals tend to hold higher rank in organizations such that they have disproportionate input in decisions about employee compensation. 

I think that is an accurate description of my own experiences in the workplace.  However, I did not intend in any way to let everyone else off the hook.  Many of us who are not male and/or not the primary/sole breadwinner of a family harbor similar assumptions.  I include myself in that same boat; I am guilty of the same erroneous thinking as others. 

Further, such assumptions can be so subtle that we don’t even recognize we are making them.  However, the danger is that when we don’t recognize our assumptions, we don’t realize the judgments we make that are underpinned by such incorrect premises.  It is important to be cognizant of our assumptions so that we can avoid that trap for the unwary. 

I had a recent experience that will hopefully shed light on how such assumptions can easily arise.

A family we know recently had a birthday party for their twins at a local pool.  Kindly they invited us.  We had not seen them in a while, so it was great to get to visit and catch up. 

My husband and I each shadowed one of our kids to make sure they were safe in the water.  I was with my younger child who is still learning to swim; my husband took our older child who participated in a competitive game of keep-away with a beach ball.  Several parents and I were in the shallow end of the pool with our kids—keeping them safe and trying to chit-chat with each other. 

The hosting father introduced me to another dad because we shared a professional commonality: we were both lawyers.  The lawyer-dad and I talked about our respective work while our kids bobbed and splashed us. 

Later on, I was visiting with the wife of the lawyer-dad.  She had a one-year old who really kept her on her toes.  The woman and I had a pretty long, very pleasant chat.  Turns out I know her father professionally.  He is a lawyer too. 

She was just a lovely woman.  At one point, my younger child was a bit fussy and tired.  It was too early to leave, but my child was too tired to swim anymore and just wanted to be cuddled in my arms.  This kind mom tried to distract my child by inviting her to play a game with her one-year old.

Towards the end of the pool party, the hosting mother mentioned to me in passing that this mom with whom I had been visiting was a lawyer in a particular governmental agency.  I was really shocked.  I had visited with her more than anyone else at the party.  But the whole time we chatted, I assumed she was a stay-at-home mom.  I was introduced to her husband because he was a lawyer.  No one mentioned she was one as well. 

The lawyer-dad was in his 30s and had two young children.  Honestly, I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve known who fit that description.  The vast majority of male lawyers I’ve known who have children have spouses who are full-time caregivers.  Having a two lawyer family is somewhat unusual.  But it is extremely unusual to have two practicing lawyers with minor children.

I wrote an article last year about the underrepresentation of women in the legal profession.  In my research I came across a good deal of scholarship describing how the professional work place is based upon a set of assumptions created when most workers were men with full-time caregivers (i.e., their wives) at home to iron their clothes, pick up the kids from school and have a hot meal on the table when they got home.  The scholarship describes that because women almost never fit that ideal worker model, they struggle to meet the logistical demands of the American workplace.  The struggle is particularly dire when a woman has children and consequently more demands on her.  As a result, many women leave the workplace if it is financially feasible for them.  The article I wrote described this situation as one of the main reasons so many women leave the legal profession prematurely.

Because of my awareness of these trends and because of my own life experiences of knowing so few lawyer-parents with a dual career family, it just didn’t occur to me this particular mom at the pool party had a professional job outside the home.  During our conversation, she never alluded to one; we were talking about other topics. 

In retrospect, it is amazing that I assumed her husband was the primary breadwinner.  In reality her job is much more prestigious than his.  Her job is also likely more demanding than her husband’s.  Don’t get me wrong.  They both had good jobs.  But hers was in a particularly elite office.  She had a highly respected, very coveted position.  Clearly, she must be a very talented lawyer and spends a lot of time on her profession.

At the end of the pool party, when I realized my mistaken assumption, I was honest with this fellow lawyer-mom.  We had a good laugh.  She said she probably would have made the same error because she has had similar experiences.  She noted that she worked in a fairly large office, but she was the only female lawyer with kids.  We also compared notes and lamented the fact that so many of the women, with whom we went to law school, left the legal profession after becoming moms. 

The relative paucity of women supporting families in our profession is a real trend.  And it is tragic on a number of levels.  It can easily lead us to incorrect assumptions with horrendous consequences. 

In my experience, most female lawyers who are moms are either single parents.  Alternately, they are partnered and are the sole or primary breadwinner of their family.  Either way, their salary is not spent just on luxuries.  These women’s salaries are not merely an added bonus to household income.  Their salaries are critical sustenance for their dependents.  Assuming otherwise can lead to underpaying such women and disadvantaging their families.

Proverbs 8:12

"I am wisdom, and I have good judgment.
I also have knowledge and good sense.

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