Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998

Gender and Family Issues in the Workplace

Francine D. Blau and Ronald G. Ehrenberg (editors)
Russell Sage Foundation: New York
0 87154 117 3
US$42.50 (hb)
xii + 302 pp.

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This collection originated at a conference in the USA which examined whether maternity and parental leave promotes gender equality. It was partly in response to the 1993 federal Family and Medical Leave Act which introduced the requirement for firms with at least 50 employees to provide unpaid maternity leave for up to twelve weeks. As the editors note, this policy is modest by comparison with most EU member states. The main preoccupations in the contributors' analyses are firstly, does extended leave protect or side-track women's careers? Secondly, do statutory entitlements to extended leave deter employers from recruiting women? Other issues are discussed more generally along the way, such as whether extended leave reinforces the traditional division of unpaid labour within families, and whether such policies are necessary to society as a whole insofar as they improve the well-being of children.

The opening chapter provides a succinct overview and a clear editorial assessment of the contributors' results and conclusions. A scene-setting chapter follows in which Claudia Goldin uses cohort analysis to argue that there has been some progress from women's 'marriage or career' choice at the beginning of the century, but that even among highly educated women it is still the case that only a minority are able to achieve substantial career success when they have children. The next three chapters assess the impact of maternity and parental leave on women's labour market prospects and the economy. Jacob Alex Klerman and Arleen Leibowitz compare the labour force participation of women in USA states that passed maternity leave laws in the 1980s with that of women in states that did not. Jane Waldfogel examines the wages of women who returned to their initial employers following a birth with those who did not. An international comparison of developments in leave entitlements and the macroeconomic impact of the presence and duration of leave entitlements is provided by Christopher Ruhm and Jackqueline Teague. Taken together, these papers suggest that the effects of family leave on employers, workers and society as a whole are quite positive. The remaining three chapters analyse why professionals work long hours and what type of policy intervention would increase market efficiency (Renee M. Landers, James B. Rebitzer and Lowell J. Taylor), whether individual career progression is affected by the gender of the supervisor (Donna S. Rothstein) and the closing chapter consists of three short interventions on the broader issue of work and family policies from Olivia S. Mitchell, Barbara R. Bergmann and H. Elizabeth Peters.

There are a number of common features running through the book. The first is the disciplinary approach. The research questions are developed from an essentially neo- classical economic perspective in which markets are assumed to operate efficiently unless proven otherwise, and hence policy intervention to redress unequal outcomes is only justified if a 'market failure' can be shown to exist. The six chapters reporting empirical analysis all rely on quantitative data, most of which is secondary analysis. A number of these chapters also specify formalised economic models of individual decision-making and rationality. The second commonality is that the actual research questions all address the USA, due to the explicit focus on maternity leave legislation in this country but also due to the geographical base of the contributors.

These features of disciplinary and national focus are not in themselves the basis for major criticisms. The chapters are clearly written and accessible to non-economists, and provide good quality and often innovative analyses of panel and micro-census data which enhance our understanding of the issue in hand. The neo-classical perspective on markets also produces a particular type of academic rigour in assessing whether there are equity and efficiency criteria for policy intervention. I found the inclusion of discussant comments at the end of each chapter particularly helpful for they provided a critical evaluation which widened the debate and presented competing voices. Finally, the tight focus on the USA is also welcome in preference to an edited collection which jumps between countries without a unitary theme. However, the volume would have been strengthened by a slight diversification of the contributory base. Firstly, I would have liked a more sustained reflection on the limits of the neo-classical perspective for understanding the operation of markets and women's position within them; either from an economist working in a more radical perspective such as segmentation theory, or from another discipline. Secondly, the comparisons drawn with the operation of leave systems in European countries are a little sketchy in places, and fail to locate the operation and organisation of leave schemes in relation to other features of the gender regime found in the societies under the spotlight (such as the organisation of childcare, variations in gender role ideologies, etc.). It would also have been useful to include a chapter on childcare services and subsidies in the USA, since research in Europe has shown that the extent and form of these arrangements influence the operation of leave schemes.[1] Despite these omissions this is a tightly organised and well-written contribution to the field.

Colette Fagan
University of Liverpool


1 For a review see C. Fagan and J. Rubery (1996) 'Transitions between paid employment and family formation' in G. Schmid, J O'Reilly and K. Schömann (editors) International Handbook of Labour Market Policy and Evaluation. London: Edward Elgar.

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998