September 4, 2002

· Gender · Sociology

I just heard a report on All Things Considered titled “Waiting too Long.” (Listen to the segment in RealAudio.) Here’s a precis from their website:

As more and more women are waiting to conceive a baby, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) wants to display advertisements to remind women that the biological clock keeps ticking. NPR’s Allison Aubrey reports the campaign has run into trouble.

The gist of the story was that women think they have forever to have a baby, and then—- whoops!—- they find themselves in their late 30s or early 40s and then have difficulty conceiving (or no success at all). The publicity campaign is suppost to remind women to get with the program early in life. Apparently the actual adverts included things like a baby bottle morphing into an hour glass, and so on.

What irritated me about the story was that it said absolutely nothing about the context—- especially the career and organizational context—- in which the decision to defer childbearing gets made. For instance, we heard from a fertility expert at UCSF Medical Center talking about a woman she had treated. “I had an example of a patient … who was a Ph.D—- very bright, very intelligent” she said, “[She was] married, so it wasn’t an issue about having a partner and being at the right place in life in terms of that” but she had “always thought she’d have time” was now unable to have a baby.

The whole pitch was, “Even this smart woman sort of forgot to have her baby—- we ought to remind people like her, before it’s too late.” My question is: If this “very smart” woman had a Ph.D, what sort of job do you think she had? What sort of family leave policies did her employer have? What sort of hit would her career have taken if she’d had a baby in her late 20s or early 30s, when her fellow employees were accelerating up the promotions ladder?

The report did quote some opposition from the National Organization for Women. A spokesperson complained that an organization with “an axe to grind” isn’t the best source of complete reproductive health information for women. I think this is true, but it seems to miss the point. Shouldn’t the real response have been “This campaign completely ignores the question of why women defer childbearing”? Honestly, it’s not like it slips their mind. All of the women I’ve ever talked to about this are well aware that they’re up against a tight clock—- this is especially true in academia, where, if you’re a woman, your tenure plans and your baby plans often fight it out to the latter’s disadvantage. Reminding women to have babies seems like a lame response to these issues to me.

Joan Williams’s Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It is as good a place as any to begin seeing what’s wrong with radio items like this. It’s an excellent, policy-oriented study of work and family life in America. Williams wants to see how the workplace could to be reorganized in order to give women—- and families—- a fair shot. The radio report started from the premise that Career vs Family is a straightforward and eternal tradeoff that individual women are wholly responsible for. A spokesperson for the ASRM said that the problem was the people had a little bit of a reluctance to admit that [women] can have careers and they can have children, but you gotta be pretty careful.” Williams locates the source of the problem not in careless women, but in the “Ideal Worker Norm.” This is the gendered conception of the good employee. It’s a cultural ideal that’s institutionalized in companies’ expectations about employees, in systems of reward and promotion, and in the benefits the state provides to workers. Looking at the problem this way means Williams doesn’t slip into any cliches about tragic choices and wanting to have it all. Instead, she shows how practical social policy could change for the better the context in which women (and their partners) decide to have children. Beats the hell out of spending money on posters reading “It’s 10 years before menopause: Do you know where your baby is?

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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