Social Constraints: Emily’s Story

Sitting in the beautiful spring sun, a girl from my dorm and I were enjoying the welcomed breeze of fresh mountain air. We were on the subject of our perspective futures, brought up by the fact that our first year in college was drawing to a close and we were both considering switching majors. Emily (changed name) was upset by her parent’s disappointment in her decision to opt out of JMU’s prestigious nursing program for a major in social work. Trying to be a good friend, I listened and affirmed that her decision was good and could still prove a rewarding career. What occurred next would haunt me to this day as an spiritual awakening that would lay groundwork that turned me into a feminist.

She began explaining her thought process behind the decision, I expectantly listened, and when she ended her diatribe I turned towards her and asked if she could repeat her last statement.

“I’m going to have a hard time finding a career no matter what I do. Besides, I’ll marry a rich man who’ll be able to pay for everything. I’ll stay home, I’ll be housewife, and this major won’t mean a thing.”

I stared at her for what seemed like hours. I didn’t mishear her. Processing everything I began to ask her slowly, “What if you don’t marry rich? What if you don’t get married?” My intention wasn’t to discredit or insult, but rather hear her reasoning; I’ve come to expect the unexpected and never put faith in something that isn’t guaranteed, and while it wasn’t a shock to hear she was expecting to get married, it was troubling to hear she expected her husband to be sole breadwinner.

“Well of course I will get married! Everyone finds someone in college!” she replied as if it Pride and Prejudice, a truth universal accepted and I was an idiot to ask. “And I’ll find a man who’ll be a doctor or lawyer or something to support me.”

Again, I was staring at her, desperately searching for a thin sign of sarcasm only to find full seriousness. “I mean, in this day and age can you really rely on a single income to support a family? What if he loses his job, what if he’s not able to pay for everything like you, kids, a house, a car?”

She considered this for a long while, “These are a lot of what-ifs, and they seem to be the worst case scenario.”

Realizing there was no hope for salvation in her philosophy I moved onto the next and most incredulously burning question, “Why do you think you’ll have a hard time making a career for yourself and have to resort to being a housewife?”

She laughed her typical self, but in that moment it sounded more like a cackle that made my stomach double over. “I’m still just a girl! I’d be paid far less, hit a glass ceiling and that’ll be the end of it. I could work, or I could put the same amount of effort into raising children and keeping up with the house. If need be, I can use my major to volunteer in the community. Why, what do you think?”

“I think of your future husband and the pressure he’ll have to provide for his family. I also think of my future daughters, and I hope they never consider for a second that they have any less opportunity to make a life for themselves than a man does.”

While I can’t condemn her for her rationale, I can’t excuse the bitter sliver of truth suggested in Emily’s comments. Everyone’s heard of the glass ceiling and many others know statistically women make less than men, but what of hard facts? What has been definitively studied and proven?

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2011 women’s annual wages were close to 83% of men’s. While Emily’s view of the career ladder isn’t incorrect, the growth of opportunities for women has been slow but upward. For working mothers however, a group that made up a little over 1/3 of the 44.5 million working women, opportunities has remained stagnant. According to US BLS, in 1991 30-year-old working women made 90% of men’s wages while mothers working the same jobs only made 70%. Of all part-time workers in America 65% are women, the majority is of whom are mothers. In a national survey, when asked what they thought of their part-time working mothers, employers across the board were quick to suggest them of having a “recreational attitude” toward work, as if it were a break from homemaking. In actuality, the need to offset family resources through a second income is steadily growing by the year.

The working wage gap between parenting families and those without children has widened over the past decade considerably, at the same time, social and economic aids have quickly disappeared from the common place to total obscurity.  As the supports for homemaking mothers erode, supports for bread-winning fathers have not emerged to offset the growing imbalance between children’s needs and families’ resources. To that end, what happens when fathers assume the role of stay-at-home dad’s or when their wife’s careers can support the family? I’ll explore this dilemma and other issues of social and economic inequality for men as involved fathers . Until then I’d like to hear from you about your experiences of inequality in the job world. What have been your takeaways, do you have any advice?

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