Are You An Ideal Worker?

Are You An Ideal Worker?

1953: Mark comes home from work, and his daughter runs to greet him. His wife has already put a home-cooked dinner on the table.

2013: Martha comes home from work. Since it’s already past her child’s bedtime, she tip-toes into her sleeping daughter’s room to quietly kiss her on the forehead.

How times have changed! In many families today, both parents work full-time, and 9 to 5 is a luxury.

The changing face of our workers

With 53% of US women being breadwinners today, and nearly 25% of women making more than their husbands, the reality in many families is that both parents are out at work during the day. Over 71% of women with children are now in the workforce.

Yet, our corporate and education systems are built around the sole breadwinner model whose stay-at-home spouse can pick up the children from school in the middle of the workday. (For a typical working mother’s schedule, check out this New York Times story.) Part-timers, women perceived to be on the “mommy track”, flex-timers, and those who deviate from the standard 9 to 5 model are all penalized through fewer promotions and smaller bonuses.

Professor Joan Williams

Professor Joan Williams

I sat down with Professor Joan Williams recently to discuss this issue. Williams, who is Distinguished Professor of Law and 1066 Foundation Chair at University of California, Hastings College of the Law, has authored or co-authored books and over seventy law review articles. Williams is also Founding Director of the Center for WorkLife Law and a founder of the New Girls’ Network, a group of women in business, media and law, dedicated to helping each other advance in the professional world.

Who is the ideal worker? 

When I asked Prof. Williams what the biggest problem with today’s workplace was, her answer was direct – “We define the ideal worker as someone who starts to work in their twenties and is available until they retire. That doesn’t describe the lives of most women.”

Ouch! So apparently, not a lot of women fit the mold of “the ideal worker” that companies want. Prof. Williams points out that the career path of most working mothers flow and ebb, rather than rise in a linear line. For example, when a woman starts a family, she may ramp down the number of working hours, and even take a sabbatical from her full-time job. In fact, over 90% of mothers aged 25-44 work less than 45 hours a week. This means that part-time jobs are actually very important to working mothers.

However, the reality is that good part time jobs are not easy to come by. Often there is a stigma is attached to part time jobs in the professional world. One of Prof. Williams’ initiatives is to educate employers on how to instill an equitable part-time model that doesn’t penalize part-time employees when it comes to promotions and bonuses.

Creatas Images

Creatas Images

Where are the boys?

One formidable barrier to reforming our workplace model is that we have so far framed this problem as a women’s issue. Yet, penalizing employees who take time off to care for a sick child affects the father, mother, and the children. The less we hear from men, the less our workplace will change.

It is simple math – in every state, the average annual cost of day care for two children exceeds the average annual rent. So, either one parent stays at home, or both have to work to cover childcare costs.

In an article in the Atlantic magazine, Marche dissected the decisions that led to his being his son’s primary caregiver, and his wife being the breadwinner. He noted, “…in my marriage, the decision came down to brute economics: My wife was going to make double what I made….These are the reasons we moved. And if I were offered a job where I would make double what she does, we would move again. Gender politics has nothing to do with it.”

Where will change come from?

The reality is that until there is a platform for us, mere worker bees, to voice our opinions and demand change, employers have no incentive to do so. Unless, of course, you’re Marissa Mayer – in which case, you can build a nursery beside your office and abolish telecommuting for everyone else.

Or perhaps, if you are a millionaire like Sheryl Sandberg, you can chastise women for not “leaning in” at work, while neglecting to do the math on what it costs to put your children in day care. As Marche correctly noted, “women are forgoing paid work not because they refuse to lean in but because they can’t earn enough money at their jobs to cover child care.”

The 1950’s family model may seem outdated. But so is our “all-in” workplace model and demands of an ideal worker – especially because so many women no longer fit (or want to fit) into our narrow definition of an “ideal worker”. Maybe it’s time to start a discussion on how to change this.

Coming up next…

By the way, Professor Williams and I also chatted about gender and racial issues pertaining specifically to Asian American women. More of that in an upcoming blog post!


About Debbie Grage

Debbie Grage
Debbie is an ALIST founder and Career Section Editor. She holds an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Her past community roles have included serving as CFO of the Asian Society at the Stanford GSB, and as a board member with the Association of Women MBA (SF). Debbie is also founder of the MenMuu Leadership Institute and specializes in helping professionals who want to manage their careers proactively. Her career blog can be found at