Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997


Balancing Act: Motherhood, Marriage and Employment among American Women

Daphne Spain and Suzanne M. Bianchi
New York: Russell Sage Foundation
ISBN 0 87154 815 1 (pb); 0 87154 814 3 (hb)
$16.95 (pb); $39.95 (hb)
xiv + 240 pp.

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The Work-Family Challenge

Suzan Lewis and Jeremy Lewis (editors)
London: Sage
ISBN 0 8039 7469 8 (pb); 0 8039 7468 X (hb)
£12.95 (pb)
xiv + 175 pp.

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I was reminded of three basic points when reading these complimentary books. One is that to understand gender relations - or any social phenomena - a range of methods are required. Our knowledge in this field has been advanced through the combination of quantitative analysis of the macro picture and qualitative studies of processes and interactions at the workplace or in the home. The second point that struck me was the changes that have occurred since the feminist movement and equal rights legislation in the 1970s. One area of change is in the behaviour, attitudes and opportunities facing women and men, which is the subject of Spain and Bianchi's study of the United States. The other is the growing awareness from the mid-1980s onwards in policy and research circles that legal rights and social benefits are insufficient to tame organizational cultures. Although these entitlements are crucial levers, their efficacy is influenced by workplace practices and norms. Even when the context is benign, competing workplace agendas and priorities can get in the way of progress. This is the concern of the edited collection from Lewis and Lewis, which addresses the question of what policies and practices makes employing organizations 'family-friendly', and how this transformation of workplace organization and cultures might be achieved. The final point is the continued tension of how to analyse gender without it becoming an over- emphatic dichotomy of differences between the sexes which homogenises the experiences of both women and men. Both books address this issue in different ways and to a different degree.

Social change is rarely fast enough for those who stand to gain from it. The persistence of gender inequality in all areas of life is apparent, with sex segregated work patterns and gender inequalities in income being just two important indicators of these divisions. Nevertheless, these continuities coexist with significant changes - not all of them unambiguously emancipatory - in the shape of women and men's lives. This combination of a lack of change in some areas alongside massive changes elsewhere leaps repeatedly from the pages of Spain and Bianchi's book. As a reader, I was carried along with their scholarly enthusiasm and awareness that we are in the midst of an important historical epoch for gender relations (without, as far as I recall, them using the 'end of the millennium' theme once!). Indeed, their book started life as a simple update to one they published in 1986 (American Women in Transition), but the extent of change that had occurred in the ten year period meant that a significantly revised volume was required. The book opens with chapters on childbearing and household formation, then moves through chapters which examine education, employment and earnings, a chapter which compares income levels of wives' and single mothers', and one which analyses gender role attitudes and the division of domestic labour.

I found Spain and Bianchi's book a thoroughly satisfying and enjoyable read on all criteria of presentation and content. It is very well-structured and written in a clear and lively manner. Each chapter opens in an attention-grabbing way, with a sketch of the change that has occurred in the last 10-15 years, often illustrated with a contemporary event drawn from the media. The range of data presented is both comprehensive and easy to digest. The main data source is the U.S.A. census, which is presented in time series to map overall change plus birth cohort analyses to track generational change, supplemented by other survey sources. Each chapter also contains a section where women's experiences are analyzed according to their race classification, and a section containing an international comparison of the U.S.A. with other OECD countries. The only room I could identify for improvement was an expansion to include more material. Given that the U.S.A. has perhaps gone furthest in positive action and comparable worth issues, I was a little surprized at the relatively limited attention given to a direct assessment of the impact of these initiatives. The discussion of the work-family issues in connection with combining paid and unpaid work in chapter 7 was also brief. And I would have welcomed a regional or rural/urban dimension to the analysis of this large country. But it is impossible for any book to give equal weight to every aspect of the study, and these limitations did not undermine the quality and persuasiveness of the analysis presented.

Overall, Spain and Bianchi manage a close and critical attention to detail with a lucid account of the wider picture. Comparisons are made with men, with the situation in other countries, and among women from the U.S.A. according to race and educational background. These comparisons shift the boundaries marking differential experience and opportunities, and are handled in an orderly and systematic manner. As a result, our understanding of the role of gender in our lives is deepened. Two particularly strong messages emerge from the book. Firstly, echoing European research findings, there is a clear polarisation emerging among women along lines of education in particular. Highly qualified women are making notable inroads into professional jobs, while other women are struggling to contend with the spread of casualized, low paid and contingent work. If they marry or cohabit, both groups of women tend to live with men facing similar labour market or class opportunities, producing an accumulation of market disadvantage in working class households. Secondly, race divisions cut across gender experiences in particularly extreme ways in U.S.A. society. A clear example of this is the assessment of women's experience of lone parenthood according to race, and how this has been racialized as part of the wider 'underclass' rhetoric of US political discourse to a much greater degree than in Britain for example.

Work-family issues are the focus of the volume edited by Lewis and Lewis, which draws together contributors from Europe and North America. The focus is narrower than the macro-level approach of Spain and Bianchi, and is rooted in more qualitative, workplace studies. As the authors point out, despite a growing clamour for workplaces to become more 'family-friendly' from a range of interest groups, what is meant by this is still debated, and we know relatively little about the extent and form of developments which might fall under this rubric. This book provides a useful intervention in the debate. The opening chapter uses an organizational studies framework to reflect on how change is achieved at the workplace and critically discusses what is meant by the term 'family-friendly organization'. The argument presented is that a transformation of the organization of paid work is not only necessary for reasons of gender equity and a more general improvement in the quality of life, but that there is also a strong 'business case'. This business case encompasses more than simple recruitment and retention 'Human Resource Management' principles. It is also argued that an organization which is premised on a recognition of the connectedness of people's workplace and personal lives makes other gains in efficiency, innovation and mutual trust. The subsequent contributions add flesh to this broad framework. Other chapters in the first part of the book review the public policy context by assessing the policy agenda of the European Union and the potential legal leverage in the anti-discrimination legislation to promote the reconciliation of employment and family responsibilities. Sections two and three assess current workplace practices and developments drawing on a range of case studies to illustrate the range of catalysts and conditions needed to successfully overcome barriers to change. The concluding chapter argues for a partnership approach to rethinking work-family issues in a way that brings together the interests of employers and employees, stimulated by public policy incentives and sanctions.

The Lewis and Lewis collection brings together a useful range of articles and makes some critical theoretical steps in conceptualizing what is 'family-friendly' and identifying the elements of successful organizational change. The evidence presented indicates that the work-family debate at the organizational level has gone furthest in large leading edge American companies and that there has been some diffusion in Europe, in part through the influence of American transnational companies. But that overall the 'business case' has not been picked up and acted on by employers. At the same time, the case studies present insightful analyses of examples of progress, such as the chapters on the Midland Bank's experience in the UK and Rank Xerox in the U.S.A. The chapter by Holt and Thaulow provides a particularly fascinating study of formal and informal flexibility at work in Nordic countries, which demonstrates how workplace culture affects the degree of latitude individuals have, and the kind of tasks which are accepted as making legitimate demands for flexibility. They show that in many female-dominated jobs women actively create more working-time flexibility than would be expected from the organization of the work. In contrast, many male- dominated jobs have much more potential for flexible practices than actually occur, and when men create informal flexibility it is primarily in relation to hobbies or personal errands rather than domestic tasks or childcare. Other chapters show how the integration of work-family issues into wider objectives of organizational change, although difficult to achieve, produces far reaching processes of change.

These strengths of the book sit alongside some weaknesses. While a crucial element of organizational studies is about identifying the key factors necessary to successfully implement change, a couple of the chapters place too much emphasis on a good practice shopping list, for example in relation to company relocation. This is suitably principled but deflects from the more demanding issue of how to persuade businesses to accept these demands. A related point is that the theoretical and empirical emphasis of the book is primarily upon organizational restructuring in service industries, and particularly in professional and clerical type activities. This is despite the inclusion of some examples of new work practices drawn from manual jobs or manufacturing sectors, and the mention at several points in the book of the wider economic context of job insecurity, low wages and unemployment. The most sustained and critical discussion of how the 'business case' might have limited salience for the economic realities of a growing proportion of contingent workers is provided by Gonyea and Googins in relation to the US, and the assessment we are left with is that trickle-down is perhaps the most that can be hoped for. The overall impression left by the book is that if work-family initiatives are going to expand at the workplace they are going to develop fastest and furthest in certain professions and information-based activities led by leading-edge companies. This likely development needs to be analysed head-on rather than noted more or less in passing, for it may contribute to the growing segmentation of deregulated, information-based economies and the differentiation between those women who are managing to break into the core jobs and those who are not.

Colette Fagan
Department of Sociology, Social Policy and Social Work
University of Liverpool

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997