Marissa Mayer, the family and capitalism

March 14, 2013

Tithi Bhattacharya explains what the actions of the multimillionaire CEO of Yahoo tell us about the spheres of production and reproduction in a capitalist society.

A YOUNG mother is building a nursery near her office at work so that she can be close to her infant while still being able to do her job. This should be welcome news for all working mothers, as a model that needs to be adopted at all workplaces.

But not according to this particular mother herself.

Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, a company currently worth $20 billion, is the mother in question, and alongside creating this private nursery for her own child, thus combining parenting and work, as the boss of the company, she has decreed that no Yahoo employees may work from home. It goes without saying that for any employee parents, there will be no purpose-built, fully staffed nurseries attached to their work cubicles.

Mayer's decision to ban workers from being able to work from home goes to the heart of the debates around women's liberation: How important is class in shaping gender? Why is it so hard for the vast majority of us to combine domestic labor, including parenting, and workplace labor? How can someone like Mayer, who clearly understands the need to combine the two kinds of labor, turn around and ban that possibility for her employees?

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer
Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer (Mirko Ries)

We need to be engaged with two questions that come together here. One is the arena of production, where the ruling class agenda revolves around austerity. The other is the arena of reproduction, where the battle is being waged both legally (new laws to restrict reproductive rights and attacks on government programs that are part of the social wage) and ideologically (victim-blaming in cases of sexual assault, further sexualization of female bodies, homophobia and transphobia, and so on).

We need to be committed to fighting on both fronts--and to rejuvenate and revive discussions about how production and reproduction are related to each other.

Is Mayer a "Harbinger of Social Change"?

Home and work form the two opposing poles of our lives that seem never to work in harmony. Why are we constantly torn between finding time for our family and completing a project at work--or feeling guilty about not picking up a sick child from school because our boss refused to give us a break? Marissa Mayer's own set of reproductive choices is a perfect embodiment of the problem.

Early last year, while announcing her pregnancy, Mayer also said: "My maternity leave will be a few weeks long, and I'll work throughout it."

Immediately, the mainstream press jumped in to support Mayer's commitment to productivity. The Wall Street Journal's Allison Lichter worried a little if Mayer's decision would inspire "HR departments and heads of businesses to begin to expect other mothers" to give up maternity leave, but she rallied right back to say that "[i]n the end, Mayer can choose to be any kind of mother she wants and those choices are none of anyone's business except Mayer, her husband and baby." Stew Friedman at the Huffington Post had no such equivocations, declaring Mayer to be a "harbinger of social change."

I don't know for sure what kind of prenatal and postnatal care Mayer received, but with her net worth of approximately $300 million and an annual base salary of $1 million, I would hazard a guess she had adequate medical support and care.

But what's significant is that even for a person such as Mayer, the work/family conflict did not magically dissolve--i.e., her baby did not grow into a teenager during her brief time away from the physical location of work so that he could be left home alone without parental supervision. Mayer's solution to the problem was the correct one: to bring the baby to work and provide him with stellar care.

Imagine how you would feel as a working parent if your infant/child was in the same building as you being looked after by a highly qualified team of caregivers while you worked? What Mayer did as a boss was precisely to block this possibility for her employees by banning workers from working from home.

Work Versus Home

At the root of this work vs. home conflict is the fact that the U.S. has one of the most family-hostile set of public policies in the world, which forces people to fit into what could be called a de-gendered or gender-blind workplace.

For example, the U.S. is one of four countries on the entire planet that lacks any paid maternity leave--the other three countries are Lesotho, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland.

But if public policy makes it hard for women/parents to have full-time jobs, how do those policies then treat women who stay home to be full-time homemakers and parents? In this, too, the U.S. remains the worst industrialized country for women to be living outside the traditional economic sphere: levels of maternal and child poverty are much higher here than in Europe.

What do I mean by the phrase "de-gendered workplace"? I use the term to describe how, because of a set of policies and practices, "workers" as socio-economic beings are required to have neither race nor gender. In a society that is heavily weighted against people of color, women and non-normative gendered people, to organize the arena of work such that workers are only recognized as that, and are stripped off all other life-histories and identities, is not gender- or race-neutral, but is openly oppressive. Another way of stating this would be to say that although capital may be gender blind, capitalist social relations certainly are not.

The very notion of a rigid work schedule forms the primary framework of the problem. Having a work schedule isn't connected to human biology, the natural seasons or, as liberals like to believe, individual preferences. A typical schedule for workers is determined by their company's relationship to the market and its need to maintain and increase profits.

This is a monumentally unnatural "need": one that uses workers' capacity to labor to serve the tiny minority with access to profits. Such a system built around generating profits for a minority through the labor of the majority depends on strict disciplinary modes, as there is nothing natural or spontaneous about waking up at unreasonable hours and leaving home in order to make profit for your boss.

Punching in and out is one such disciplinary mechanism, and adherence to it is generally a matter of strict policy. In many workplaces, arriving late or leaving early can result in getting fired.

(I don't mean to suggest that disciplining the workforce is the only reason why capital seeks to control how much time a worker spends in the workplace. The fundamental reason, of course, is that, as Karl Marx explained, every extra hour the worker spends working for the boss, beyond the time needed for them to "reproduce" themselves, is profit for the boss: hence, the longer the working hours for the worker, the higher the profits for the boss.)

Attending to personal matters--for instance, a phone call about a sick child--is typically discouraged during "work" time, and a majority of people don't have any control over when they can take a break during the workday. Thus, the workplace regime is fundamentally hostile to all forms of reproductive work and domestic labor. It is a system where work and home are seen not simply as opposites, but as antagonistic.

Let's look at a few examples of this antagonism:

According to a study cited by author Jody Heymann in the book The Widening Gap, nearly 60 percent of working class people, men and women, have no control over their start or end time at work, and 53 percent can't take time off to care for sick children.

And yet people are forced to spend even longer hours at such workplaces, away from their homes and families. This is because wages are so low for the majority that a 40-hour workweek is not enough to keep poverty at bay. According to a recent report by the Center for American Progress, in 2006, American families worked an average of 11 hours more per week than they did in 1979.

Working parents get little or no financial support, either from the government or from private companies, to help pay for child care costs. And yet, unless you're Marissa Mayer, you can't take your child to work. According to a recent report by Child Care Aware of America, the cost of child care for two children is more than annual average rent payments in many states, while in 35 states, the average annual cost for infant care exceeds a year's in-state tuition and fees at a four-year public college.

The problem of child care is reduced but does not end with the start of public schooling for children, because school ends long before parents typically get out of work. According to Joan C. Williams in the book Reshaping the Work Family Debate, the gap between "work schedules and school schedules has been estimated to average 20 to 25 hours a week" and "an estimated 39 million children between the ages of five and 14 participate in no organized system of supervised activities after school"

How can such a work regime even attempt to respond to the messy, diverse, beautiful and unique needs of human beings and their actually existing families?

But work is not an "option" for most people. Jobs cannot be avoided and their demands are as persistent as those of a hungry infant or the need to cook. Indeed, it is their mutual exclusivity and equal importance that determines that some form of accommodation must be made between the two spheres. The most common forms of this accommodation are:

(a) one person stays home to take care of the home and children, while the other goes to work;

(b) one person is forced into part-time or seasonal work, always with less pay and usually with no benefits, while the other person has a full-time job;

(c) single parent-headed families or families where both parents work full time end up constructing what one sociologist calls "crazy quilts" and "tag teams" of caregiving where the entire burden of crafting a care system for their children or an elderly family member falls on the individual families.

It goes without saying that in the scenarios above, women are disproportionately the stay-at-home parent, and this structurally forced domesticity brings with it the attendant isolation, economic vulnerability, depression and lack of self-worth.

Since 50 percent of American marriages end in divorce, the economic crisis is further compounded when the "breadwinner" leaves. As a result, two out of three of the elderly poor in America are now women.

The Myth about "Opting Out"

The same mainstream media that celebrates the Marissa Mayers of the world, however, like to tell us a different story for other women. Newspapers such as the New York Times have carried a spate of stories about how women are increasingly "choosing" to "opt out" of their careers so that they can be home with their families/children.

The Center for WorkLife Law conducted a content analysis of such print news stories for the years 1980-2006 and found that such stories could be related to the lives of only 3.7 percent of American women, all white and in high managerial jobs.

The study concluded that what these media failed to mention was that rather than "opting out," a significant number of women are pushed out of the workforce because of de-gendered and hostile workplace policies. For instance, one study cited in an American Journal of Sociology article showed that when asked to rank identical resumes, mothers were 79 percent less likely to be hired; 100 percent less likely to be promoted; and offered $11,000 less in salary.

These social processes that render the public sphere of "work" thoroughly incompatible to the private sphere of the "home" have wider implications for us all. For instance, masculinity constructed on such a model of strict separation tends to bind men to the public sphere, to the exclusion of the private. As a result, affective qualities that in reality are common to all human beings become highly gendered--women are expected to have "caring" emotions, while men are celebrated for essentially anti-caring ones such as toughness and so on.

This process of gendering works in a vicious cycle of reinforcement. When the material sphere of work is constructed in such a way that it is impossible to integrate work with the needs of the "private" or the family, then the public figure, separated from the home, emerges from this schism expected only to deal with the tough terrain of work. Thus, the "public" person of the pair--most often the man--has to work longer hours to cover living expenses for the whole family, thus taking them even further away from actual care work in the home and further hardening traditional roles.

Sociologist Francine Deutsch has shown how these roles and models are maintained despite actual countervailing practices. Her work shows that in real life, working class men actually do more hours of child care than upper middle class men, but at the same time believe that "mothers are ultimately responsible for child care and fathers for breadwinning."

Scholars such as Eli Zaretsky and Stephanie Coontz point towards another aspect of this strict separation: how it shapes our view of politics, which is something associated with the "public" sphere. According to Coontz, writing her book The Way We Never Were, this separation took discernible form in post-Enlightenment Western liberal thought:

Political and economic relationships came to be organized around the contractual rights of equal, independent individuals; only gender and family relationships remained organized around personal needs, individual differences and dependence. This led to a growing divergence between politics, law and economic--the site of competition and objective laws, men's arenas--and interpersonal relations--the site of altruism and subjectivity, women's arenas. It also created a polarization between public rights and private needs that eventually hampered people's ability to develop a responsible approach to either.

Historians like Coontz demonstrate forcefully how this separation essentially released the public sphere, and those in charge of it, of any expectation to institute policies that embody such "feminine" traits as altruism or cooperative interdependence. Only by such logic can important social programs like pensions or Social Security be labeled as "handouts."

A Question of Strategy

It's clear then that home and work are hostile to each other in our current society, they are constructed to remain this way, and ordinary working people pay the price for this. Hence, Marissa Mayer's attack on workers with families is a very attractive one for her class. Within days of her announcement, another company, Best Buy, ended its work-from-home policy for workers. We can expect other copycat bosses to follow.

One of the insights that comes from the evidence I presented above is that while the division between the public and private appears to be an equal division of labor and responsibilities, in reality, the sphere of work determines how we arrange our lives at home, how e inhabit our social and emotional roles, and even what expectations we have for our gender.

This doesn't mean that the sphere of work or production is more important than, or superior to, the private sphere. Indeed, Marxist theory shows the reverse to be true: that production, in the formal economy, is made possible only because of reproductive labor. It is through care and nurturing (reproductive labor) received in the private sphere that capital receives a full functional being--the worker--ready to work at the point of production, while having to pay nothing for her/his work-readiness.

The necessity for the vast majority in our society is that we have to work--for someone else and according to terms we don't control--in order to meet our daily needs. This "work" ends up shaping not only our work-lives, but also our home-lives--how much time we get to spend at home and when, how we relate to people who may not even be part of the sphere of "work," how we provide or fail to provide time for our children and so on.

This is why sociologists like Joan C. Williams focus on how workplace policies constrain both women's and men's choices, inside and outside the workplace. That the family is "a gender factory" has been long recognized by feminists--Williams usefully points out that "so is the workplace."

As revolutionaries, we always need to strategize how we can best fight our battles. Should it be in the private sphere against issues such as marital rape, domestic violence and an equal share in household chores? Or should we focus on the public sphere in our battles for equal pay, parental leave and adequate benefits?

The answer, at the elementary level, is, of course: both. We can't focus on struggles in one sphere to the exclusion of struggles in the other. However, as Marxists, we should consider this question beyond the frame in which capital presents the question, which is always in terms of the two spheres.

In the past, some sections of the women's movement have taken this division between the private and public for granted, and perhaps underestimated capital's ability to maintain itself in exchange for a set of reforms. As Johanna Brenner recently put it:

From this vantage point, the reasons that the feminist movement has been so wildly successful and so painfully a failure come into focus. Insofar as feminism sought to win the right to contest and compete with men, free of legalized and culturally approved discrimination, feminism has won gains that have transformed--or are in the process of transforming--industrialized capitalist societies. Insofar as feminism sought to socialize responsibility for social reproduction (free--publicly supported and organized--day care and before/after school care, well-paid parenting leave, shorter work week and work day, generous income support and pensions for caregivers, etc.), feminism has utterly foundered.

Brenner's conclusion is not simply to point to the past limitations of the movement. As a stakeholder in its success, she is discussing strategies for how it can win. The key to a truly emancipatory politics, according to Brenner, lies in dismantling the productive/reproductive (home/work) divide. It would require us to force capital to pay for the care/replenishment that workers receive at home, currently at no cost to the system.

Brenner understands that such a socialization of care would require a "redistribution of wealth from capital to labor," when wealth in recent times has only moved in the opposite direction. She points out that "until a militant, disruptive, society-wide movement" emerges, this division between the private and the public, between work and home, will hold sway and continue to reproduce gender oppression in its myriad forms.

A movement that hopes to dismantle oppression once and for all cannot limit the struggle to one or the other of the two spheres--it must be truly "society-wide": a body blow against capital itself. It's time for us to carry an old slogan back to new arenas of struggle, from SlutWalks to teacher's strikes to anti-rape mobilizations: "No women's liberation without socialism; no socialism without women's liberation."

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