Wednesday, May 05, 2010

First and Foremost, It Is Sexist

Every now and then, I check in at the Mother Lode blog at the NY Times. Today, there was a post about celebrities being "first and foremost" moms. It got me thinking, which I suppose makes it a good blog post.

I wish that this was not even an issue worth thinking about, but I think it is, not because I think we should care how some celebrity defines her life, but because of what it says about how all of us define our lives. Am I "first and foremost" a mom? Or a scientist? Or a manager? Or a techie? (Or, for that matter, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a book lover, a blogger, a traveler, an out of practice fiddler....?)

I am all of those things. At once. At any given moment, one aspect or another is probably dominant, but it is rare that I spend a day where I am "first and foremost" any one thing.

I don't think I am unusual in this regard.

I think the need we seem to have to make women declare their allegiances- are you a mom or a worker?- is part and parcel of the same thinking that makes it so common for me to be asked about how I achieve work-life balance, while no one has ever asked my husband that question. Not once.

And it is closely linked to an insidious type of sexism I've been noticing more now that I have added "mom" to my list of roles. Some people want to explain away the differences in the number of women in certain professions or at the highest ranks in most professions by saying that it is not sexism causing those differences. It is the fact that women become mothers, and that causes them to limit their own careers. So there is no problem, you see, because it is all personal choice.

Well, I call BS on all of it. If motherhood is preventing large numbers women from obtaining their career objectives, that is sexism- unless fatherhood causes the same impediment. The time during which there is an actual, biological difference in the parenting requirements of mothers and fathers is just too short to lay the blame for the large inequities that persist at the feet of motherhood.

None of this is to belittle women (or men) who choose a different path, and don't want to stay in the work force once they have kids. I think that in most cases their list of roles encompasses more than "mother" (or "father"), too, and if it doesn't, that is fine. But can we please stop acting like women who choose to have both "mother" and "worker" in their list of roles are required to choose which one comes first? That is a false choice, and unless you ask the same of all the working fathers out there, it is a sexist one.


  1. Nice post, I agree completely. Especially about no one EVER asking my husband how he 'balances', when we have EXACTLY the same job.

    And about the biology, people tend to think nursing is some big time sink for the mother. Well it does take a lot of time, but what about everything else? The diapers, the cooking, the laundry, the shopping etc etc. There's more than enough there that even when nursing my twins every freakin 1-2 hours or whatever, my husband was able to keep himself busy with all the other stuff such that we basically spent the same amount of time on non-work, non-chill-out activities. We even tried to arrange things so I could go to sleep early to try to make up for the night feedings.

    I just think it's sad that so few women have such an equal relationship with their partners.

  2. @zed- you are exactly right about how other chores can make up for the nursing time. We do the same thing, and except for the short period of time when the baby is learning not to bite me, I think I have the better end of the deal. Nursing is far more fun than doing dishes.

  3. Great post and the right call to call BS on the whole "statement". I mean, can't you be "first and foremost" a mom when you're concentrating on your children and "first and foremost" a scientist when you're getting paid to do that?

    I also think there's a disservice to both the child AND the parent when a parent becomes so child-oriented that they forget their adult selves -- who should have wants, needs, interests etc that do not orbit their kids.

  4. Great post. I completely agree. I happen to think that being a mother has made me a better worker. I work at a REALLY supportive place but I find even the supportive comments a little off-side. I had my review recently (it was excellent and hasn't been at all affected by my mommyhood) and my bosses went so far as to commend me on my work/life balance and noted that if that had been a category on my review, I would score top marks. I KNOW they meant it as a compliment, but I just couldn't help thinking (since I am the only female at work with a child, while there are many men at work with children), that there is no way in hell that comment came up in any other person's review. It means that even if I am doing a good job, they are watching, and noticing, and thinking about how my having a child has affected my work.

    Incidentally, at the same meeting I informed them of my second pregnancy and they were wonderful and supportive and congratulatory. Seriously, these are the kind of people you WANT to have as bosses (particularly in the hard-assed legal profession notorious for chewing women up and spitting them out). And yet, still....

  5. Cloud, you hit the nail on the head with this post. No one would ever ask a man to reveal a "first and foremost" identity, but women constantly face the question of whether they are primarily a mother or worker.

    The question is a no-win. If we say we are mothers first, we lose out on career opportunities that go to those who can say that work is primary. If we say we are workers, we risk being labeled as a selfish mothers who care more about career than raising kids.

    Along these lines, I frequently hear that the pay gap is a result of women taking time off care for children, economists Lawrence Kahn and Francine Blau debunk this in The Shriver Report ( Their research suggests that just 10.5% of the pay gap can be explained by differences between men and women's work experience, including time off for caregiving. Another 50% is explained by job choice, which I would suggest is heavily influenced by sexism. 41% of the pay gap is "unexplainable," which strongly suggests that it's related to attitudes that can't be measured -- i.e. sexism.

    While women in the workplace are slowly making gains, mothers are still struggling to be recognized as serious workers. This is an insidious kind of sexism because it creates a feminist divide between those with and without children.

    Look forward to continuing the conversation.


  6. This may be one of my favorite posts ever! You said it so perfectly, as did the commenters, that I have nothing more to add except my whole-hearted agreement.

    Oh, I do have some thing to add: The Words We Use. Here are some terms I hate, which many women use that continue the underlying sexism in our society:

    -Manny for male nanny - It's the same job, so why would you need to differentiate between a male doing it and a female doing it? Either way, it's a nanny.

    -Wife for a person who does the cleaning/cooking/etc. around the house - There was recently a post by a blogger who I really like who said she needs a wife because she came back to a house in disarray when her husband was in charge. While I know lots of women use this term and I know it's intended to be funny, I have a real issue with the implications behind it.

    I'm sure I have more, but I fear I'm getting off topic. ;-)

  7. I love this post too. I'm an engineer, in a management position, and I'm not First and Foremost anything! I'm many things, including mom, wife, engineer, mananger, gardener, etc.

    @caramama I have another one for you - when other moms are out, without kids, and they say that "Daddy is babysitting". Babysitting? Isn't it called parenting when its Daddy? I've had lots of people use the term with me when they see me without kids. "oh hey, is DH babysitting?" and I always get so annoyed that they just assume that the parenting falls "first and foremost" to me and that when their father is looking after them, that's babysitting. Has anyone ever done it the other way around, asking a man if his wife is at home babysitting their children? I've never heard it.

  8. Amen, sister/mamma/scientist/fiddler/super woman!

    The bad thing is if I were to count the hours I actually spend with my kids and the amount of time I spend at work, and I used that as a measure of "who I am" it would be worker first, sleeper second, mom third, wife fourth, friend dead last... I don't like that scenario at all but on a quantitative scale that's what it amounts to. In my mind and heart I AM who I am all rolled up into one and each part of me is so vitally important.

    But it breaks my heart I only see my kids for 2 hours in the am and 2 hours at night. That's part of the reason I prefer we all sleep together because I like to think of it as making up for lost time and as being with them.

    I am so hoping that the more women are able to break into top levels in govt and jobs the more they will force laws, policies and attitudes to be family friendly. I think it's bull you need to work 60 hour-weeks to break into or stay in the hierarchy.

    I think the long-hours are a farce (in some professions) and that they were established by people who are workaholics (i.e. slaving and success are a measure of how awesome you are) or who want to avoid their own homelives for whatever reason. We all shouldn't have to play by their messed up rules.

  9. Bravo, Cloud. I'm with you all the way here.

    And dismissing the struggles of women in certain fields (whether those struggles are parenting-related or not) as "personal choice"? That's just so very easy and convenient, isn't it?

  10. Well said! We have come so far, but there is still so far to go. I am lucky to have a husband who shops for groceries, cooks dinner almost every night, does chauffeur duty for our daughter, handles most of the doctor appointments, and we split bed time duties equally. But while some people frowned about my going back to work 8 weeks after having a baby, no one thought it was wrong that he went back to work after 2 weeks.

  11. Nice post! You are right, no one ever asks husbands about the balance...

    I don't really think there really is a balance -- 'balance' implies some sort of a static (time-independent) construction. Work-life is more of a see-saw, and constantly requires re-prioritizing of day to day activities (e.g. kids OK --> can focus on papers and grants; kids sick --> must drop everything)


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