Skip to main content

It's working 'parents,' not just mothers

By Kathleen McCartney, Special to CNN
updated 12:04 PM EDT, Fri March 15, 2013
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
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:48 PM EDT, Sat October 25, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT