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Wash U Sociologist's Book Explores How Women Navigate Work And Family In US, Elsewhere

Caitlyn Collins, author of "Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving," discussed the role of public policies in improving the the balance needed to accommodate the two roles of motherhood and career.
Lara Hamdan | St. Louis Public Radio

Issues on the forefront for women in the workplace include wage equity and advancement opportunities. More conversations are now encompassing the balance needed to accommodate the two roles of motherhood and career.

On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh talked with Caitlyn Collins, author of "Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving." The newly released book looks at working mothers' daily lives and the revolution in public policy and culture needed to improve them.

Collins, an assistant professor of sociology at Washington University, compared policies in the United States with other well-developed countries such as Sweden, Italy and Germany – and found staggering differences in cultural attitudes towards child care.

“The U.S. has, what I would argue, the most family-hostile set of public policies of any country in the western industrialized world,” she said.

Listen to the full discussion: 

Collins added that despite 70 percent of mothers working outside the home in the U.S., “they maintain the lion's share of responsibility for housework and child care – and trying to juggle these two things without any support such as public child care [and] paid parental leave means that it's incredibly difficult for women to work full time and figure out how to take care of the domestic sphere.”

So what makes the U.S. so different? Collins said it’s the all-American mindset of valuing individual responsibility.

“We have a discourse here in the U.S. that families are the backbone of our society; we also think that it's families’ jobs and families’ jobs alone to raise children and raise them well. But every other western industrialized country understands that this is a collective responsibility worthy of public support,” she explained.

Collins interviewed Swedish women and explained they reported very little work-family conflict.

“We can attribute this to not only policy supports for families, but also cultural attitudes that breadwinner and caregiving are equally men's and women's responsibility,” she said. “And that's reinforced in public policies like 480 days of paid-parental leave that's intended to be split between men and women; it's reflected in the fact that they have a public child care system that has a guaranteed spot for every child starting at the age of one.”

Included in these conversations are also men in the workplace and the role of fatherhood, Collins reiterated.

“In heterosexual households, men are part of the solution here. We live in a society that has long understood caregiving to be mothers’ responsibility. And I think we're at a really interesting time, culturally speaking, where men are understanding that they can have – should have – an equal role in the household,” she said.

While her research focused mostly on heterosexual couples, Collins also addressed difficulties same-sex couples with children face.

“Even in these progressive countries … [same-sex couples] often experienced discrimination – both from childcare providers [and] sometimes from the medical industry. If they were looking to do in vitro fertilization, for example, sometimes health insurance wouldn't pay for that if they were same sex – but they would if they were [heterosexual] couples.”

So I think [same-sex couples] face, in some ways, the same problems and in some ways, very different problems that most of us who identify as heterosexual don't necessarily encounter or even spend that much time thinking about day to day.”

Collins emphasized that public policies should be geared toward both men and women. An example would be paid parental leave for both parents.

“If it's just women disproportionately who use these policies, we are going to see them discriminated against in the workplace,” she said. “If they are vaguely of childbearing age, we will see these women experience discrimination in the hiring process and the retention process, and when we think through who gets promotions and raises.

But if it's both men and women who use these policies, we won't see these sorts of disadvantages concentrated solely on mothers. So I think paid family leave is a central part of the conversation.”

Related Event
What: Book Launch Party for “Making Motherhood Work”
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, February 27, 2019
Where: Left Bank Books (399 Euclid Ave., St. Louis, MO 63108)

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.
Lara is the Engagement Editor at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.