Hurdles Facing Men Juggling Work, Family

Striking the right balance between raising a family and managing a career is a struggle for many women. But it is increasingly a challenge that many American men face as well. Host Michel Martin speaks with law professor Joan Williams of the University of California, Hastings, about her new book, Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week we visit with a diverse group of parents for their commonsense advice.

Today we want to talk about the whole issue of balancing work and family life. It's a subject that's gotten a lot more attention in recent years. But when the topic is discussed often, the subject is the professional mom with a white collar job and we are invited to imagine her with a briefcase in one hand heading out the door to leave her child at daycare, then heading back home to manage - with a baby on the hip.

But what about the people who don't fit that picture, but who are also struggling to balance work and home responsibilities? What about the mother or father who works long shifts, maybe even a second job and then comes home to take care of children and household chores?

We're going to ask our regular parenting contributors about this a little bit later, but first we've called on Joan Williams. She argues that working class families and men are too often left out of the work/life balance conversation, and she's written a book to try to change that. It's called "Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter." She's also the director of the Center for Work Life Law at the University of California's Hastings College of the Law. She's with us now. Thanks so much for joining us.

Professor JOAN WILLIAMS (University of California - Hastings College of the Law): I'm delighted to be here.

MARTIN: So, what made you think of this?

Prof. WILLIAMS: Well, I have been doing and thinking about how family life and work life fit together or don't fit together, really, since the birth of my first child in 1986. And I for years thought about my own life and the lives of people around me, professional-managerial workers, top 13 percent of American families. But gradually I began to think and recognize that although we have serious work-family conflicts, we're the lucky ones. And the people in the low wage sector, in the bottom 30 percent of American families and that missing middle, the middle 53 percent, really have acute work-family conflicts, but they're very different from the kinds of conflicts that I was seeing experienced by the people around me, the professionals.

For example, there was a telephone repair person and she was a single mom and the company decided that anyone who called before 3 p.m. got their repair taken care of that same day. On the other hand, for this woman, it meant that she never knew when she was getting out of work. So the first time, she called her boyfriend, she called her mom, she called somebody else. And then eventually she said, you know what, I just can't do this, I have no child care. And she left. And so that was an example of the kinds of conflicts that are faced by people who are, frankly, less privileged.

MARTIN: But you also make an argument that there's a lot of pressure on men all up and down the income scale and the class scale.

Prof. WILLIAMS: Absolutely.

MARTIN: For example, on the, you know, on the blue collar scale, you talk about a case where a grandfather who took care of his grandchildren on his off hours needed to maintain a certain shift so that he could hold up his end. And then his boss wanted to change his hours. He would not acknowledge that the reason he needed a certain time was to take care of kids. And so he was fired for that.

Prof. WILLIAMS: Yeah.

MARTIN: But on the other end of the scale, in Silicon Valley, you talk about a study of Silicon Valley and there's a lot of posturing around who works the longest hours and that there's a lot of pressure on people to work long hours just to be visible working long hours.

But the question is, that that conversation is really not very much a part of our public conversation about work-life balance. The question I have is, why not?

Prof. WILLIAMS: I think that when we think of work-family balance we think of childcare responsibilities. When we think of childcare responsibilities we think of moms. And now men actually report higher levels of work-family conflict than women. And I think one of the reasons is that men are caught, in the way that women always have been caught, between this ideal of a worker who's always available to the employer and the ideal of a mother who's always available to her children.

In the past, that ideal of a worker always available to his employer fit very well with the old-fashioned provider ideal that sent the message that the key way to be a good father was to leave home and go to work, so that you would provide income for the family. That provider ideal has far more purchase on people's imaginations, I think, than we really acknowledge. But it's now beginning to be contested by a different ideal, the ideal of the nurturing father.

At that point, men are facing the kind of conflict that women have faced, but they're facing it without the ability to make the changes that women very often make. And that's because of the blue-collar grandfather you were talking about, the Silicon Valley engineer.

If you think about it, let's talk about the engineer first. The study of engineers in Silicon Valley said that the guys out-macho each other by each being more of a nerd than the engineer sitting next to him. And one of the ways they show whose is biggest is by working long hours. So when we're talking about whose is biggest, of course, we're talking about schedules, but we're also talking about something else. We're talking about who's the most manly of them all. So it's very difficult for them to say I have to leave now because I have to take care of my kids.

MARTIN: Do you think that we will be having different conversations about this? I mean, the piece - you just wrote a piece for the San Francisco Chronicle about the midterm elections, saying: Don't blame Obama. Blame the last 40 years.

Prof. WILLIAMS: Yes.

MARTIN: Do you think we'll still be having this conversation in the next 40 years?

Prof. WILLIAMS: Well, I'm working awful hard to try to start a conversation to teach progressives how to talk to working-class folks in a respectful way and to teach them that if we want these folks as coalition partners, here is what they care about. Here is how it overlaps with what we care about.

MARTIN: Joan Williams is the author most recently of "Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter." She's also the director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of Law, and she was with us from San Francisco.

Thank you so much for joining us.

Prof. WILLIAMS: Thank you. Enjoyed it.

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