Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About it

Posted: 27 Sep 2000


Joan Williams' Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict And What To Do About It (Oxford, 1999) is a "theoretically sophisticated and thoroughly accessible treatise" that offers a new vision of work, family, and gender. (Publisher's Weekly, Nov. 1, 1999) It examines our system of providing for children's care by placing their caregivers at the margins of economic life. This system that stems from the way we define our work ideals, notably from our definition of the ideal worker as one who takes no time off for childbearing or childrearing and who works full-time and is available for overtime. The ideal-worker norm clashes with our sense that children should be cared for by parents. The result is a system that is bad for men, worse for women, and disastrous for children. Williams documents that mothers remain economically marginalized, and points out that when mothers first marginalize and then divorce, their children often accompany them into poverty. Williams argues that designing workplaces around the bodies of men (who need no time off for childbearing) and men's life patterns (for women still do 80% of the child care) often constitutes discrimination against women. She also engages the work/family literature to show that "flexible" workplaces are often better than existing practices for employers' bottom line. On the family side, she argues that the ideal worker's wage -- after as well as before divorce -- reflects the joint work of the ideal worker and the primary caregiver of his children, and should be jointly owned. In a comprehensive examination of the theoretical issues surrounding work/family issues, she uses the work of Judith Butler and Pierre Bourdieu to explain why gender has proved so unchanging and unbending, reframing the special treatment/equal treatment debate, the debate over "women's voice," and offering new perspective on how to avoid the persistent race and class conflicts that emerge in debates over work and family issues.

Suggested Citation

Chalmers Williams, Joan, Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About it. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=194509

Joan Chalmers Williams (Contact Author)

affiliation not provided to SSRN

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