A new definition of labor

Margery Elfin

September 04, 1992|By Margery Elfin

AS Labor Day approaches, the good news is that equality is less an issue than ever before in women's working lives. Encouragingly, women's wages are gradually approaching men's, though women remain badly underrepresented in management.

Yet, one returns to the question posed by Freud: What do women want?

It seems evident that women do not necessarily want to conform to the world of work as structured by men, but would choose to modify it to accommodate personal and family needs. Now that they're allowed in the game, they want to change the rules. This is often hard for men to understand.

Many women believe that changing these rules would benefit both sexes if men would only listen to the arguments that challenge traditional thinking -- in effect, take a zero-based approach to work. It would then be readily apparent that work has not changed to fit the new circumstances of society.

For instance, when wives were at home to do volunteer work, handle the bulk of the household errands and care for children and the elderly, standard hours made sense and life functioned smoothly.

But today, when so many women are working mothers who care for small children, there are several major problems.

Chief among them is the length of the school year. Long summer vacations no longer fit many family schedules. Some school districts are experimenting with year-round school with shorter, more frequent breaks. This might also help boost declining test scores because students would not be out of school for as much as three months at a time.

Moreover, few government offices have adjusted to the changing patterns. License renewals, car inspections and the like are most often handled during regular business hours. Pediatricians and orthodontists continue to schedule appointments as though there were plenty of parents available to bring children in during the middle of the day.

There are many ways business could restructure to accommodate the changing scene. "Flex-time" -- giving employees the option of working other than standard schedules -- is one timid step. More important -- and more radical -- is shortening the work week. Critics say this leads to still lower productivity, but the relationship between the time workers put in and their work output is unclear. This is especially true of office work. It may well be that employees, faced with the prospect of a longer break in their week, might actually be more productive.

Day care centers on the job site are another means of making work more humane and more attractive. The cost of day care is hard to quantify. Given this benefit, many people would work for lower salaries, thus reducing absenteeism and tardiness.

Male-oriented society has never given sufficient thought to integrating work and family needs. Management styles more natural to women, as many studies have pointed out, center on cooperation and place more importance on worker self-esteem. As the need for manual labor diminishes and a vast information network has the potential of linking us all, working at home becomes more realistic for many people.

And because of their biological clocks or the caretaker roles they have traditionally assumed, women are more sensitive to the needs people experience at different stages of their lives. Women can see that cycling people in and out of the work force may actually be economically efficient. This is especially true for women who are often at their most productive when their family responsibilities are over. In a rapidly aging society, we can't afford to lose capable employees to early retirement, particularly if their best years have been the most recent years of employment.

In this dreadful age of child neglect and abuse, we must begin to place real value on what women do at home. Maternal duties, housework and volunteer work have not received the consideration they merit. These contributions should be considered part of the gross national product. There should be some way to measure what they add to the economy. This could be incorporated into the tax code, along with child-care subsidies for every mother or father who chooses to stay home. It might avoid the guilt some women feel over working and would certainly make the economic burden of the single-income family less onerous.

Women are questioning the price of equality. The price may be more than they, or society, ought to pay. And there are possible solutions: new approaches that challenge the premises on which business and employment practices have been based. It's time for business and government to catch up with the new society they serve. The men who for so long have commanded the economy must begin to listen to women.

Margery Elfin is chair of the Department of History and Political Science at Hood College in Frederick.

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