The Breadwinner-Homemaker Trap

The Breadwinner-Homemaker Trap

Finding Time: The Economics of Work-Life Conflict
by Heather Boushey
Harvard University Press, 2016, 360 pp.

What Works: Gender Equality by Design
by Iris Bohnet
Harvard University Press, 2016, 400 pp.

To illustrate the tensions between work and family, Heather Boushey begins her book with a woodcut triptych from the late-nineteenth-century campaign for a forty-hour work week. The triptych depicts the classic slogan, “8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, 8 hours for what we will.” But nowhere in the woodcut, Boushey points out, is there anyone taking care of the needs of the family. Today, when most American women work outside the home, neither male workers nor businesses can take that caretaker role for granted.

The triptych also presents another problem hovering in the background of both Boushey’s book and one by Iris Bohnet: the decline of the American labor movement. Just as the woodcut assumes that there is someone at home taking care of the children, it also makes assumptions about what the workers will do during their “what we will” hours. The workers in the panel illustrating free time are relaxing in a rowboat but while they do so they are reading the Union Advocate. A tiny picketer stands next to them, showing another option for these eight hours of free time. Yet, neither Boushey’s nor Bohnet’s book engages with the general absence of labor unions from today’s workplaces or how workers’ loss of free time might be related to labor’s decline.

Boushey and Bohnet are both interested in how the workforce has changed since the era depicted by the triptych. Specifically, the context for each author’s book is the relatively new assumption that most women, even women with children, will participate in the workforce. Both Boushey and Bohnet argue that while women’s place in the workforce is now accepted, social programs and corporate policies continue to assume that workers will have someone at home taking care of their families and that someone will be a woman. This assumption works against efforts to create more gender equal workplaces. Overcoming it is at the heart of both Boushey’s and Bohnet’s books.

The two authors approach the challenges created by women’s entrance into the workforce from quite different angles. Bohnet provides a catalog of behavioral “design” tricks intended to force our brains to overcome ingrained biases and make workplaces more gender equal. For example, in one chapter she suggests removing demographic information from job applications. In another she recommends ensuring that workplace teams include a “critical mass” of members from every subgroup (in this case, women) rather than a single, token woman; studies show tokenism undermines credibility and thus reduces the value that diverse voices other...