Lingering Restrictions and Growing Opportunities for the American Working Mother

February 21, 2013

Fifty years after the first publication of Betty Friedan’s bestselling feminist manifesto The Feminine Mystique, the United States is still woefully behind other countries when it comes to gender equality in the workplace, wrote The New York Times. The newspaper cited several studies to show that, while the ideals of the average American man and woman favor gender equality in both the workplace and the home, economic circumstances and a lack of government support for working families have consistently prevented American parents from abiding by their progressive ideals.

According to The New York Times, a study by the Pew Research Center found that in 2011, two-thirds of women ages 18 to 34 and 42 percent of women of middle age or older believed that,  aside from having a family, building a successful career was one of their paramount priorities. Another study by the Center for Work and Family in 2011 found that 65 percent of fathers believed that both mothers and fathers should contribute equally to child-rearing.

Yet when it comes to actually putting these beliefs into practice, many women and men find it necessary to fall back into a system that favors working fathers and women who sacrifice career advancement for homemaking. The U.S. currently has minimal policies in place to help working parents balance their job hours with their family obligations. Furthermore, The New York Times mentioned sociologist Pamela Stone’s findings about the impact of lingering workplace prejudices (including salary disparities and hours that do not accommodate childcare needs) on women’s decision to quit work or forego occupational roles that require more responsibility.

Once women leave the workforce, many of them find it difficult to pick up where they left off. One study showed that almost 30 percent of women who stopped working to start a family were unable to re-enter the work force. In addition, of the opt-out mothers who were able to find re-employment, 60 percent were only able to find part-time work. The result: a nationwide workforce whose reality does not match its desire for occupational equity between the sexes.

Some companies are working to remedy these stubborn gender disparities. The Wall Street Journal reported that consulting firm McKinsey & Co. has begun re-recruiting women who left their ranks years ago to take care of children. Similarly, Bain & Co. has a small team that focuses on maintaining contact with mothers who have left their workforce and offering them flexible options should they wish to return to work. Other consulting companies, such as Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. offer “returnship” programs, which are paid internships of sorts specifically for former professionals who left the workforce for family reasons. “Companies…should be focusing on this pool just like they’re focusing on the pool of recent college graduates,” said Carol Fishman Cohen, who co-founded a career re-entrance consulting company called iRelaunch in Massachusetts.

For their part, professional women are also asking their parenting peers to take the initiative to demand and earn the family life and career success that they desire. In her piece for The Atlantic, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon discussed Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s new and controversial book Lean In, which argues that women do have the capability to be successful career women and devoted mothers. While she does mention the fact that Sandberg’s book has met with some criticism, she also praises its aims to remind women of the value-add they bring to the national workforce, and to convince them to fight for what they deserve. “We live in an era of immense change when it comes to what women do, how they do it, and with whom,” Lemmon wrote, “Between 1970 and 2009 the number of jobs held by women leapt from 37 percent to close to 48 percent. […] Women own nearly 8 million businesses, enterprises that provide more than 20 million jobs.” These numbers indicate that a nation that neglects to help working mothers achieve their ambitions actually loses out on an incredibly valuable pool of talent and potential.

Compiled by Kaitlin Louie


“McKinsey Tries to Recruit Mothers Who Left the Fold,”, February 19, 2013, Leslie Kwoh

“Sheryl Sandberg’s Radically Realistic ‘And’ Solution for Working Mothers,”, February 20, 2013, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

“Why Gender Equality Stalled,”, February 16, 2013, Stephanie Coontz

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