The worn-out debate about whether women can “have it all” is misleading at best and fails to address the real issues facing American women because it’s overly simplistic. First, let’s stop pretending that work is optional for most women in America. Seven out of every 10 moms work, and for many of them, earning money is a necessity, not a choice.
Women work because their families need food, shelter and clothing. They work because they want to live in a safer neighborhood or because they want to save for their kids’ college educations or live the American dream. Today, four out of every 10 mothers are either the biggest breadwinner in the family or the only breadwinner in the family. More women than ever are earning their family’s paycheck while also serving as their family’s primary caregiver.
Women also work because they want to work. They want to have an impact on their communities or in their professional field, and they want to make a difference outside of their homes. They should not be deemed selfish or overreaching because of that human desire.
Instead of only asking about why or how women are doing so much (or trying to “have” so much), we should ask what American companies can do to help their workers meet their families’ needs. And we also need to empower more men to become primary caregivers or take on more caregiving responsibilities. We can do this by promoting family-friendly, gender-neutral policies that recognize that all people need flexibility at certain times in their careers to meet family needs. Finally, by labeling working women as trying to “have it all,” we are also demeaning women at home by somehow implying that they have a life that is less than “all.”
So let’s stop talking about “having it all” and start talking about the very real challenges of “doing it all.” We need our economy and our workplaces to support our working families. We need equal pay for equal work because the children of women who earn most of their family’s money shouldn’t be shortchanged. We need quality daycare that doesn’t bankrupt a family. We need gender-neutral paid leave in this country because, eventually, all of us are going to have those moments when we need to miss work to take care of our families—or those moments when we need them to take care of us.
I’m a mom with two young sons—Henry is 7 and Theo is 12—which means these family issues affect me personally. But I’m also a Senator with a husband who has a flexible schedule—and I have resources, support and flexibility of my own. I can cancel a meeting when Theo has an asthma attack or when Henry gets sick. How many working mothers have that flexibility? How many working parents have someone to support them when they can’t make it home to cook dinner for the kids? I worry about the woman who cleans the office at night or who puts in double shifts as an emergency-room nurse or who works full-time for minimum wage and still lives in poverty. Work and family are both basic tenets of our society—and we need policies that reflect that core value.
If we want women to have as many opportunities for growth and advancement as men, then we have to change our workplace rules. We need gender-neutral paid leave so women who have children or ill family members don’t have to quit their jobs to meet their needs, finding they have to start over at the bottom rung of the next job when they start working again. We call this the “sticky floor,” and it keeps women in low-wage jobs without real opportunities for advancement. It’s one of the reasons women make up two-thirds of minimum wage earners. We need a minimum wage that is above the poverty wage, equal pay for equal work and affordable, quality daycare. These would create a basic shift to fairness and opportunity for all workers.
Women should be able to make the best choices for themselves and their families. Instead of continuing the old debate about “having it all,” let’s focus on the very real challenges of “doing it all”—and then raise our voices to fix these challenges.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, has been in office since 2009.