Work and Family: Restructuring the Workplace

Posted: 10 Nov 2015

See all articles by Nancy E. Dowd

Nancy E. Dowd

University of Florida Levin College of Law

Date Written: 1990


It arises out of a workplace structure hostile to family responsibility and caregiving work, premised upon a highly gendered division of work and family roles, and reinforced by the demands and structures of a post-industrial economy. It is rationalized by an ideology of individual choice and individual burdens which masks the nature of the structure and basis of the conflict. Women have exposed the issue and it seems to matter most to women. But we misunderstand work-family conflict if we see it only as a matter of simple removal of self-evident barriers that block women's progress toward equality. While the conflict between work and family clearly impedes women's equality, more fundamentally, it reflects the clash of essential assumptions about family, work, and their relationship to each other. It opens those assumptions, and the very definitions of family and work, to questioning and reconstruction. This conflict therefore points to structures of power and authority based not only on gender, but also on race and class. Its resolution challenges those entrenched hierarchies of power.

Nothing less than a restructuring of the workplace is necessary to resolve this conflict. The depth and complexity of that restructuring points to the importance of analysis, context, and vision. Our analytical approach, literally how we think about this issue, is critical to both the process and results of problem solving. It is my contention that we must avoid "legalistic" modes of analysis, at least as we presently conceive of legal analysis, because that mode of analysis saps creativity, avoids complexity, and pushes against the recognition of diversity and the creation of real choices. We must think about work and family from a pluralistic, contingent, paradoxical, and transformative analytical frame.

Essential to that analytical framework is sensitivity to context. We must be clear about the underlying assumptions and value structure of the existing framework, and the realities of the structure when viewed from the perspectives of gender, race and class. Any approach to a new structure must emerge from this understanding of the substance and operation of the existing workfamily structure.

The complexity and difficulty of changing the structure should not be debilitating or limiting. Rather, the awareness of context is the key to effective policy, as well as to imagining a workplace of different assumptions and relationships. Firmly grounded in where we are, we can begin to envision a restructured workplace. That vision requires an outer framework of values to inform efforts to rethink, restructure, and transform the workplace. This expressly value-laden task requires moral argument and persuasion as the basis of social and political decisionmaking.

In this article I hope to contribute analysis, context, and vision essential to restructuring the workplace. Part I provides a picture of contemporary families, the workforce, and the workplace. It begins with a brief historical overview, and then examines the present context generally and from the perspectives of gender, class and race. It is a context of enormous diversity, upheaval, and transition in families and the workforce, in sharp contrast to the rigidity, conservatism, and traditionalism of the workplace. The workplace is largely hostile to family life, structured upon outdated assumptions about families and deeply ingrained stereotypes concerning work-family relationships. This context argues for uncovering and transforming the underlying assumptions of work, family, and the work-family structure.

Part Il focuses on analysis of work-family issues. I contend that the way in which we think about work and family is critical. The complexity of workfamily issues, the interrelation of individual needs and life choices, of community and societal values, and the rigidity of the value structure of the existing workplace structure all point to the necessity of approaching this issue with a different method of problem solving. We must work from paradox, and toward diversity and pluralistic solutions. This requires questioning everything, exposing and uncovering the values and assumptions of the existing structure, as well as re-examining our fundamental concepts of work and family.

In Part III of the article, I attempt to set out what I think are pieces of the vision of a transformed workplace. It is incomplete by design, partly because I think we have only begun to imagine the vision of what we want. But incompleteness also is essential to leaving open spaces, to resisting a simple, uncluttered, singular picture. The pieces I envision of a transformed workplace include: (1) redefinition and revaluing of family and work, including breaking down and reconstructing our view of what is public and private; (2) enhancement of diversity, celebration of difference and promotion of real choices; (3) degenderization of work-family roles, and the elimination of other unjustifiable and impermissible choices based upon race and class; (4) elimination of dominance and the abuse of power; and (5) insuring economic independence, of families and of individuals within families.

Keywords: workplace, women, gender roles, family, degenderization

Suggested Citation

Dowd, Nancy Elizabeth, Work and Family: Restructuring the Workplace (1990). Arizona Law Review, Vol. 32, No. 431, 1990, University of Florida Levin College of Law Research Paper, Available at SSRN:

Nancy Elizabeth Dowd (Contact Author)

University of Florida Levin College of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 117625
Gainesville, FL 32611-7625
United States
352-273-0930 (Phone)
352-392-3005 (Fax)


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