Twenty years ago, Hastings law professor Joan C. Williams taught environmental law.  “Then,” she said, “I had a baby.”  The personal difficulties she encountered as she tried to meet the demands of her job and the needs of her family led her to spend the next twenty years of her career studying work-family issues.

In her new book, Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter, Williams turns conventional wisdom on its head. Williams argues that work-family conflict isn’t just an issue for women, it’s just as much an issue for men.  “We need to challenge the social norms of conventional masculinity, particularly as they play out in workplace,” says Williams. In order for fundamental change to take place, we need to enable men to make work-life balance a priority in their lives too.

For Williams, the real driver of work-family conflict is that today’s workplaces are organized in ways that are out of step with the lives of contemporary American families.  Despite the fact that all adults are in the labor force in roughly 80% of American families,  most jobs continue to be shaped around the ideal of the masculine breadwinner who is available to work anytime, anywhere, as long as is necessary because there is someone (a wife) at home to care for the children.  Williams takes aim at these kinds of masculinized social norms and argues that they hurt both men and women.

These norms hurt men because they keep intact the belief that being a real man means completely devoting oneself to work at the expense of family life.  These kinds of conventional gender ideas put pressure on both white-collar and blue-collar men, making them reluctant to push back against expectations that they work long hours or disclose at work that they have family responsibilities.  As one Silicon Valley engineer in the book remarks, “Guys constantly try to out-macho each other.  There’s a lot of see how many hours I can work, whether or not you have a kid…  He’s a real man; he works 90-hour weeks.  He’s a slacker; he works 50 hours a week.”  In Williams’ studies of union arbitrations, she found union men who would rather be fired than admit they needed to leave work to care for their children.

These old-fashioned social norms hurt women in the workplace too, because they reinforce other gender stereotypes like the idea that mothers are more committed to family than to work.  Women are then penalized by such stereotypes because it is believed that they cannot or will not live up to expectations of workplace devotion.

In order for real work-life reform to take place, Williams advocates for both cultural and political change.  Culturally, she argues we need to stop assuming that work-family issues are only about women.

Politically, Williams argues that “the United States has the most family-hostile public policy in the developed world because of a broken relationship between the professional-managerial elite and the white working class.” Public policies to help Americans balance work and family include social subsidies (like subsidized child care) and workers’ rights (like limits on mandatory overtime and paid family leave), neither of which is politically feasible in the current frame of American politics. Williams offers a novel analysis, arguing that a “class culture gap” drives the working class away from progressive causes, along with suggestions for how to bridge that gap. Ultimately, she hopes her book will help bring about new cultural models and political frameworks which free both men and women to be “balanced workers,” who combine serious work commitment with serious family commitments.

Hastings law professor and director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Joan Williams will speak at 4:15 pm on October 28 in Tresidder Union, in a book discussion sponsored by the Clayman Institute. This talk is part of a series of conversations addressing the Institute’s theme: "Beyond the Stalled Revolution: Reinvigorating Gender Equality in the Twenty-first Century."

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Originally published by The Clayman Institute for Gender Research on Standford.Edu on Monday, October 18, 2010