VOLUME 22 #1

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Paychecks and balances

Bahira Trask
Bahira Sherif Trask

RESEARCH | For women around the world, negotiating the work-life balance is an immense challenge, says Bahira Sherif Trask.

In Western cultures, as women’s responsibilities in the workplace have increased, men have expanded their role in home and family responsibilities. But in many developing countries, women who enter the workforce—by choice or necessity—often find themselves exploited by dismal working conditions or unsympathetic (and, in some cases, resentful) patriarchal figures at home.

In Trask’s latest book, Women, Work and Globalization, the professor of human development and family studies explores the changing role of women as their participation in the global labor market increases, and she advocates for policies that help them balance work and family responsibilities while decreasing their vulnerabilities.

The implications of women joining the workforce, both in the U.S. and around the world, are complex, Trask says.

“Employment can provide women with financial security, political power and greater autonomy and even improve their health and emotional well-being,” she says.

“However, in developing countries, many women from rural communities move to urban areas, where they may become more educated and less sheltered. They may reject customary social arrangements, which can lead to conflict within families and even an increase in domestic violence.”

Not only that, she says, but societal needs as a whole can be affected as women, who have traditionally cared for young children and aging parents or participated in volunteer work, become unavailable for those tasks.

In February, Trask gave a presentation, “Perspectives on Work-Family Balance and Global Transformations,” as part of a United Nations panel discussion. The event was part of a yearlong UN series focusing on family policy issues.

In the sidebar, she offers her assessment of the big challenges to balancing work and family, as well as some suggestions for ways to make society more work- and family-friendly.

Article by Alison Burris, BE85

Why is it so hard for Americans to balance work and family?

  • • The belief that work-family issues are important only to women
  • • The supposition that the interests of employees and employers are in opposition to each other with respect to work-family issues
  • • The assumption that work-family issues need to be worked out between employers and families without government assistance
  • • The fact that the U.S. is the only country in the industrialized world that does not provide paid maternity leave—unlike 188 other countries that do
  • • The lack of a comprehensive, national, high-quality child-care program in the U.S.
  • • The myth that men continue to be the economic providers and women the caretakers, when the contemporary reality is that 40 percent of American women are the primary or only breadwinner in their households
  • • The fallacy that caretaking responsibilities have decreased as families have fewer children, when in fact, the opposite is true: As the baby boomers age, many more individuals are engaged in caretaking responsibilities
  • • The increased prevalence of nonstandard work schedules, job insecurity and earnings inequality, even in the middle class, making it more difficult to give equal attention to work and family responsibilities
  • • The complex situation that work-family issues are individualized and so do not lend themselves easily to a one-size-fits-all solution

What would help?

  • • Flextime arrangements that allow parents to coordinate their work schedules with their children’s school schedules; research indicates that workplace flexibility benefits both employers and employees and that workers use flextime and family leave conservatively
  • • Policies that allow employees to take short leaves for both planned or unplanned incidents
  • • Paid leave for new mothers and fathers (all industrialized countries except the U.S. and Switzerland now offer leave for new fathers)
  • • Increased access to early childhood education and high-quality child care
  • • Modifications to school schedules that take into account that most contemporary parents are working outside the home
  • • Greater coordination between community resources such as schools and health care systems to facilitate more efficient interactions with families
  • • Learning from other places in the world that have already developed functioning work-family policies
  • • Providing a “menu” of choices for employees, allowing them to figure out individual solutions to their particular family situations
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