Book Review: Gender Pressures (Reviewing Williams’s Reshaping the Work-Family Debate)

This book review is co-authored by Naomi Cahn.

Joan C. Williams, Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter (Harvard 2010), 304 pp.

As the unemployment rate increases, as we chart the rise of the Tea Party and the Republican Party’s ability to express disdain for the unemployed without significant political cost, Americans lack a roadmap for the role of class and gender in the new American landscape.  Joan Williams’ book, Reshaping the Work-Family Debate:  Why Men and Class Matter (Harvard 2010), supplies that roadmap.  The book creates an innovative critical framework for examining the relationship between law, work and family in the post-industrial economy and for ensuring that both men and women are included in any revisioning of this relationship.

The book builds on Williams’ earlier research exploring the maleness of the workplace and expands it dramatically.  Williams starts with the caustic observation that “we still have a workplace perfectly designed for the workforce of the 1960’s.”  That workplace depended on the availability of “ideal workers,” who could meet employer expectations premised on the availability of someone else to tend to the children, run the necessary household errands, and make the work-family relationship work.  While today’s workplaces successfully assimilate women who participate on the same terms as men, they remain remarkably resistant to creating more supportive environments that would assist parents – male or female – in balancing the competing demands between work and family.  The curious question is why.  Williams makes the case that more flexible workplaces would benefit employers and that the U.S. is so far from the norm that it can boast “the most family-hostile public policy in the developed world.”  She argues that the key to changing it, as her subtitle suggests, requires bringing class and the construction of gender into the debate.  She shows how the hidden injuries of class fuel gender traditionalism and the culture wars associated with a conservative resurgence.

Where the book moves most significantly beyond Williams’ earlier work is placing the debate over the workplace at the intersection of class and gender.  The first part of the book thus retells the story of work-family conflict.  The initial chapter takes on the story that while well-educated women are not more likely tot drop out of the work place, they may face the most intense choices between the remade ideal of super- mothering (the new helicopter parents) and workplace norms that prize total dedication.  The second chapter then tells the often heartbreaking stories of the dilemmas working class parents face; these dilemmas are often not so much about time as flexibility – the inability to make a personal phone call can affect children’s lives.

The middle part of the book links these developments to the remaking of workplace norms of masculinity.  In 1965, class had little to do with leisure; executives and union members worked about the same hours. Today, the American elite works longer hours than most of the rest of the world while working class men put in fewer hours than they did in 1965.  The new “macho” norm for law firm associates or Silicon Valley engineers is total dedication; for the working class men on an oil rig, it continues to be physical bluster.  Williams argues, however, that both competitive norms not only drive women away, they are also bad for business.  Industry productivity goes up when the company takes into account the costs of attrition and the lack of cooperation.  Workplaces with mixed rather than macho gender norms outproduce the competition.

Williams’ most innovative research addresses class.  In the post-industrial world, the poor, racial minorities and recent immigrants who have not yet made their first million may still be Democrats, but the white working class has moved decisively into the conservative camp.  She traces liberal politicians’ change in emphasis from economic concerns to cultural issues as a critical source of the alienation that many members of the working class feel:  the title of one chapter is “Culture Wars as Class Conflict.”

Indeed, Williams’ brilliant contributions to the emerging literature on class stems from her recognition that the new class antagonisms are less about income – the working class is the middle of the American income distribution – than they are about family and culture, and that a class analysis must focus not just on the haves and the have-nots, but on those in between these two groups. While working class income has held steady, working class families are in crisis.  Over the last two decades, the divorce rates for the white working class have continued to rise even as they have fallen substantially for the college educated, and the non-marital birth rate is moving steadily upward even as rates have stabilized for the urban poor. The underlying cause is a growing mismatch between men, women and family expectations.  The working class holds more traditional family values than the college educated; yet, working class families need two incomes and the job prospects for working class women now exceed those of the men.  Family unfriendly workplaces and a lack of support for childrearing exacerbate the tensions.  Yet, the toxic politics of cultural division direct this anger at the prospering creative elite of the information economy, blocking the type of policies that might provide greater assistance to men and women at all income levels.

In her analysis, Williams courageously addresses the politics of race, acknowledging the way that liberal privileging of racial grievances over economic ones has helped undermine support for government intervention more generally.  She also captures the cultural tone-deafness of the more educated classes, who sneer at the role of religion in stiffening the moral backbone of families in crisis. Perhaps as critically, she explains the role of gender, focusing on masculinity, in the recreation of class, arguing that it is the intersection of male and female roles, not women’s needs standing on their own, that will allow a resurgence of feminist activism.

Reshaping the Work-Family Debate is not, in many ways, a legal book – yes, there are cites to statutes and cases and law review articles – but instead lies at the intersection of sociology, law, and politics, with some economics as well; Williams’ book complements works such as Tom Frank’s, What’s The Matter with Kansas?, Larry Bartel’s, Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age, and Maxine Eichner’s, The Supportive State: Families, Government, and America’s Political Ideals, but it has no peer in linking class to family and to the ideological fights that underlie the remaking of the American workplace.  In past work, Professor Williams has inspired scholarly debates, shaped litigation strategies, and profoundly affected government policy by, for example, influencing the EEOC’s guidance on caregiver discrimination.  This book promises to have a similar impact.

The book’s analysis, however, is not entirely complete.  While Williams is right about the importance of work-family balance, she does not fully assess the growing challenge that comes from family instability in reducing the human capital of the American workforce.

Nonetheless, her work is critical to understanding the stalled promise of the gender revolution of the sixties and seventies and the remaking of the American workplace in light of globalization and the information economy.  Her articulation of a class-conscious analysis explains the political effectiveness of conservatives’ solutions to today’s economic and cultural conflicts, solutions which champion abstinence-only education, undermine access to abortion, and advocate covenant marriage. Williams’s prescriptions for workplace reform may not ultimately succeed in managing the growing disconnect between work and family, but she nonetheless guides us towards solutions that make sense in today’s world.


June Carbone is the Edward A. Smith/Missouri Chair of Law, the Constitution and Society at the University of Missouri at Kansas City and Naomi Cahn is the John Theodore Fey Research Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School.  They are the co-authors of Red Families v. Blue Families:  Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture (Oxford 2010).

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6 Responses

  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    Thanks for this review, which makes the book sound worth reading. What do you mean, though, by “reducing the human capital of the American workforce”? Do you mean people are unlearning skills they formerly had? Do you mean simply that fewer people are working (presumably because of job loss)? Or something else? The phrase’s use as a euphemism (or jargon) for there being more people out of work recalls that the true meaning of “human capital” is slaves. (See, e.g., link @ 233, 237.)

  2. JD says:

    “Republican Party’s ability to express disdain for the unemployed without significant political cost.” Really? Can you give us an example of the Republican Party’s expression of disdain for the unemployed?

  3. Okay JD – I’ll give you one:

    “It’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations,”

  4. “Perhaps as critically, she explains the role of gender, focusing on masculinity, in the recreation of class…”

    Okay, I admit it – I have no idea what “recreation of class” means here – is it just a another way to say it’s recess time?

  5. June Carbone says:

    The “recreation of class” refers to the growing inequality in income in the US, and further skewing of opportunities in accordance with class position. Williams makes the point that those with college degrees and those without think differently about family formation and about the relationship between work and family. They also experience different workplace environments — the college educated are more likely to be in more flexible workplaces, with paid family leave, the ability to make personal phonecalls, more flexibility in changing hours or coming in late or leaving early to pick up children, etc. In addition, family pressures have become much linked to education and income, the college educated, for example, begin family formation later, are less likely to divorce or to have a child without being married.

  6. mangostein says:

    I think it will be fruitful to looking into Joan Williams own personal beliefs on discrimination and equal opportunity employment prior to labeling her as someone who advocates for the people and fairness. From what I’ve read and heard from people who have taken her classes or spoken with her, she is very much an elitist and seems quite against equal opportunity initiatives such as affirmative action.

    To me she seems like someone who’s into assigning fault, such as in cases of divorce: