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Want to empower working mothers? Call on government for help

March 22, 2013|By Alexandra Le Tellier
  • Debate: Women are being told to 'lean in,' 'lean out' and 'lean on.'
Debate: Women are being told to 'lean in,' 'lean out'… (Anthony Russo / For The Times )

In her new book, “Lean In,” Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg advises women to do just that. The  message is her “sort of feminist manifesto”: Take a seat at the table, speak up, and don’t worry about pleasing everyone. If you want to make it to the top, you can’t demure. 

But what about women who find their calling outside of the workplace – like mothers who choose to stay home and raise their kids? Are they still feminists if they choose a domestic path?

New York magazine recently sparked a debate with its cover story, “The Retro Wife,” by Lisa Miller. Miller profiles mothers who, after pursuing powerful and meaningful careers, gave up their employment in favor of ruling the roost.

And what’s wrong with that? In a segment earlier this week on “CBS This Morning,” Miller argued that women ought to have the right -- presumably in the eyes of feminists -- to “lean out.” She explains [via Jezebel]:

"I think it’s an antidote to this recommendation by Sandberg that what women have to do to further the feminist movement is to be more competitive, more ambitious, more wily, more strategic, you know, ‘don’t leave before you leave,’ that’s what she says in her book. I think the fact is, life is really hard for working mothers. And when you’re not making that much money and your husband is working all of the time and you have little kids at home and you’re not sure that your working is ever going to actually amount to that much, it makes sense to make home the center of your life."

Sure, that’s wonderful if that’s a choice a woman is in the financial position to make. For most of us, though, one income doesn’t stretch far enough. Working isn’t optional.

Washington Post Publisher and Chief Executive Katharine Weymouth presents a third option in her paper’s opinion pages: “Leaning on.” As in, working mothers are more likely to seize success if they have a  little help. She argues:  

"Hillary Clinton famously talked about how raising a child takes a village. Except our society isn’t set up that way. We’re organized in nuclear units, and a single mom can ask her friends only so many times for help picking up the kids.

"In my case, I’m lucky enough to be able to pay for help. Like all working moms, I also do a lot of juggling. Thank God for online grocery shopping.

"But there aren’t many other single-mom CEOs out there. And I think that has a lot to do with resources. You don’t have to be born wealthy. You don’t have to be as in­cred­ibly successful and become as incredibly rich as [her friend] Sheryl [Sandberg] is. You do need to be able to advance in your career to the point where you can afford child care and health insurance. Until this country offers more accessible child care, some women won’t be able to lean in very far."

Yes, our country should offer more accessible child care. But the government can’t stop there. If we’re really serious about leveling the playing field for men and women, the government won’t throw disincentives in the way of working mothers. 

In an op-ed that appears in our Friday opinion pages, “The bias against working women,” Aspen Gorry and Sita Nataraj Slavov argue that, “Our society does indeed discriminate against working women. But the main culprit isn’t employers. It’s the government.”

They explain:

“The federal income tax system imposes high tax rates on secondary earners, and the Social Security system punishes two-earner households relative to single-earner households. As secondary earners are typically women, both the tax and Social Security systems discourage married women from working.

“If we remove these barriers, many women would make different choices about their careers, taking less time off from the labor force and working more hours. Changing these choices would, of course, have a direct and immediate effect on the gender pay gap. But that's not all. When women work more during the early part of their careers, they gain valuable experience that increases their future wages.”

Continue reading to see just how the tax system works against women. And then let’s work together to press government for continued progress in the fight for equality.

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Follow Alexandra Le Tellier on Twitter @alexletellier

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