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
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1640 GMT (0040 HKT)
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1143 GMT (1943 HKT)
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1926 GMT (0326 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT