Skip to main content

It's working 'parents,' not just mothers

By Kathleen McCartney, Special to CNN
March 15, 2013 -- Updated 1604 GMT (0004 HKT)
A Michigan dad takes his daughter on an outing. Kathleen McCartney says working mothers' issues are fathers' concerns, too
A Michigan dad takes his daughter on an outing. Kathleen McCartney says working mothers' issues are fathers' concerns, too
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Kathleen McCartney believed modern motherhood is a cultural invention, not biological destiny
  • As a mom in '80s, she was a primary caretaker, but thought cultural attitudes would change
  • She says nothing changed; child care, flex time, baby leave are still considered women's issues
  • McCartney: Workplace equality won't improve until these are considered "parental" concerns

Editor's note: Kathleen McCartney is president-elect of Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, effective July 1, and is currently dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Watch Soledad O'Brien's interview with Sheryl Sandberg on "Starting Point" at 7 a.m. ET on Monday, March 18.

(CNN) -- In the summer of 1985, I lived a dual life.

In my scholarly work, I argued that traditional gender roles -- the stay-at-home mother, the bread-winning father -- were recent cultural constructs. Throughout human history, women engaged in productive labor alongside men. It wasn't until the Industrial Revolution that men began to work outside the home, tethering women to household responsibilities and child rearing.

My thesis was that attitudes toward motherhood changed as the care of children became the exclusive responsibility of mothers. Modern motherhood is a cultural invention, I argued, not biological destiny.

Opinion: Benefit of office face time a myth

Kathleen McCartney
Kathleen McCartney

When I wasn't writing academic papers, I was caring for my baby daughter, working hard to be her primary attachment figure. When she cried out in the night, I wanted her to call for Mommy, not Daddy. I recognized my desire was based on my gender, and I appreciated the irony of this. Nevertheless, I had internalized the values of my culture, and my own scholarship could not help me override this. I comforted myself that attitudes would change over time. After all, the women's movement was still relatively young, and I was mothering during the height of the Mommy Wars.

Sadly, very little has changed.

Why? Because the narrative in our culture is consistent and unyielding, reflected in the views of liberals and conservatives alike, omnipresent in our lives: Raising children is mothers' work, not parents' work.

When Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, banned employees from working from home, the media largely framed this as detrimental to women, not men. Mayer's decision was portrayed as limiting work-life flexibility for mothers, who may need to be at home -- or prefer to be at home -- with their children. Her decision was not sexist, but the coverage was.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



More than 40 years ago, psychologists Sandra and Daryl Bem invented a simple test to determine whether a statement was sexist: Could you exchange the word "women" for "men" and still have the sentence work?

Try it with the most-read essay the Atlantic magazine has ever published, Anne-Marie Slaughter's article, "Why Women Still Can't Have it All." In sentence after sentence, Slaughter's piece fails the test. In fact, the title fails. Yet few have questioned why the piece wasn't headlined "Why Parents Can't Have It All."

Simplify your life: Telecommuting isn't just for parents

Maternal employment continues to pose a threat to our strongly held belief about motherhood -- it is natural for mothers, not fathers, to have primary responsibility for raising children. By not challenging this recent cultural invention, we continue to lock young mothers into the same social binds that trapped me, even when I knew better.

Yahoo: Work in the office or quit
'Huge double standard' for powerful women
Sheryl Sandberg's challenge to women

Today, we are bombarded with the message that raising children is solely a mother's job. When women are pregnant, people ask them, but not the fathers of their children, whether they plan to return to work. When couples shop for baby products, they discover packaging and advertisements featuring mothers with children, not fathers with children or couples with children. When they watch television programs, even "Modern Family," they find stay-at-home mothers and employed fathers. Not very modern. Or perhaps it is modern, and that's the problem.

The cost to women is great in lost opportunity. The cost to society is great in lost human capital. In the United States, women comprise only 20% of the U.S. Senate and 18% of the House of Representatives. Just 12 of the 50 largest school districts are led by women. There are only 21 women leading Fortune 500 companies, and according to a recent McKinsey survey, only 18% of women managers want to be CEO, compared with 36% of men.

In this context, Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, is "encouraging mothers with careers to opt out of the parent-or-career woman binary and firmly choose both." By encouraging women to "lean in," some, such as Slaughter, say Sandberg is placing undue burden on individual women. Others argue that she is letting policymakers and cultural arbiters off the hook. People are focusing on the wrong issues. Sandberg is providing a powerful counter narrative of possibility that is all but missing in our culture.

Where does the solution lie?

I have spent much of my 31-year career as a scholar arguing for family-friendly policies like quality child care, parental leave, and flexible work hours. But if we view these policy changes as supporting maternal -- rather than parental -- employment, then roadblocks for women will remain.

We understand sexism when it's explicit -- unequal pay for equal work -- but we haven't acknowledged gendered cultural biases surrounding parenthood. Our implicit biases limit the aspirations of men and women alike. The solution lies in recognizing the problem. Only then will we change our culture.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kathleen McCartney.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1626 GMT (0026 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT