In this episode, the WorkLife HUB podcast sits down with Caitlyn Collins, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Washington University in St. Louis, author of Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving. Listen in as Agnes and Caitlyn speak about the notion of work-life justice, work-life conflict, gender inequality at the workplace and in family life, and the findings of a cross-national research study interviewing 135 working women.

What follows here are snippets from our conversation with Caitlyn - edited for length and clarity - make sure you listen to the entire conversation for the great insight!

Agnes Uhereczky: May I ask you, Caitlyn, to tell listeners a little bit about yourself, your passion and how the idea for this research came about and lead you the writing of the book?

Caitlyn Collins: I grew up at Portland Oregon. I got my PhD in sociology at the University of Texas at Austin in 2016. This book came about because I grew up with working mum here in the US who was stressed as a woman, who had career ambitions, who was great at her work and also loved being a mom. I watched her struggle, as I was growing up, a lot. She and my dad got divorced when I was 8. She continued her high-powered job in corporate sales and marketing for a number of years. And then she had decided she had enough. She quit and took a job in consulting which was part-time, that had no benefits whatsoever, paid far less, but way more flexible. It gave her the ability to be the kind of mom she said she wanted to be for us. And I remember thinking as a kid: “there’s got to be a better way to do this” so moms like mine don't have to give up their ambitions to be the kinds of parents they want. This to me, felt deeply unjust. The running joke in my household is that my mum used to call me the “fairness monitor” running around the house and saying what is fair and not fair.

Professionally, I was very inspired by the sociologist Pamela Stone’s book that was published in 2007, called Opting Out. It is a book that describes exactly what happened to my mom. She opted out. Pamela Stone interviews a bunch of women very like my mum, professional middle class preliminary white women, who say that this is their own choice. At the same time, she also demonstrates so powerfully that these women are forced out of the workplace as a result of inflexible policies and outdated cultural ideal about gender, work, and family that privilege men, and disadvantage women. I became interested in this discourse of opting out. Do women say everywhere that this was their choice to leave work to take care of their kids? Do we hear this rhetoric operating everywhere? That lead me to pursue this cross-national study to understand the experiences of working moms in different countries that have widely different work-family provisions and different cultural attitudes about gender, employment and motherhood. To me the cross-national comparison allows women's perspective to be front and centre in the conversation about what they want to be improved in their work and family life, and the role work-family policy can play in helping support them both at the workplace and also at home.

Agnes Uhereczky: Tell us a little bit about the notion of work-life justice to which you refer to in the book, and why you think this is something that should resonate much more to the reality in comparison to the concepts of work-life balance or integration.

Caitlyn Collins: The term work-life balance is something that researchers have struggled with for a long time. I am certainly not the first person to bring up the limitations of the framework of balance. At a fundamental level, the phrase “balance” suggests that the difficulties women have to manage both their jobs and caregiving responsibilities are individual in nature. It suggests that if you balance a little bit better things will be better for you. I think, for example, of a mom standing on a teeter-totter whose life would not feel so hectic if she stood there a little better. That completely negates the possibility of attending to the structural, social and political reasons why women have a difficult time balancing their work and family responsibilities.

The struggle women feel these days is deeply political, and it is not individual.

We know that context matters a lot. We have to pay attention to the broader context in which women are trying to do this balance. To me, the phrase “justice” way more adequately captures that larger context. It is easier for women to justly balance their work and family life in places where there are more robust and gender-egalitarian family policy supports. And, when culturally speaking we understand, for example, the breadwinning or caregiving or both men’s and women’s responsibilities and that employers and the government have a responsibility to help support them in that endeavour. Justice to me highlights that this is political. The struggle women feel these days is deeply political, and it is not individual. This highlights the reality that working mothers and their work-family conflict and stress they feel as a result is not of their making and that means that can not be of their fixing and a goal of balance suggest that you need to just try a little bit harder. And, if the problem is political in nature, the roots of it is deeply rooted in politics, to me, it means the solution needs to be political in nature as well.

Agnes Uhereczky: The European Union has been around for many years now. There are so many programmes to foster the exchange of good practice, but somehow I have recently started to reflect on the Scandinavian countries and their social model, as some kind of magic islands themselves. This is a big challenge for policy transfer. Italy and Sweden have been in the EU for several years together through which the representatives of these two countries have attended many conferences and exchanges to different levels via various projects. Yet, Sweden’s parental policy hasn’t rubbed off on Italy or other countries. Somehow it is when the country finds its business case, coupled with a lot of transparency and accountability. This is what we see with companies as well. For example, when Deloitte UK understood how many millions of pounds they are losing because women just exit the company at senior director level before they make partners, and they take all the knowledge, skills and network with them, that is when they decided: change must be made.

Caitlyn Collins: Exactly. There is absolutely a business case and an economic case to be made for these policies. We already know that it is very clear that implementing more progressive and egalitarian policies is good for business, it is good for national economies. What we lack is the political will to pass those policies or to pay into a system that would benefit everyone. On employers’ level, it takes them understanding that they have to pay into and invest in their employees that will benefit them, but this is not instant gratification. This is difficult for countries. I would love to make the moral, ethical or the feminist case for these policies but the reality is that it is not enough to persuade people’s minds. We also have to change cultural attitudes about what we want and expect from one another, from our governments, employers or partners. Until we change those cultural attitudes I think we are going to see a real stubbornness and unwillingness to pass more progressive policies.

Agnes Uhereczky: At the end of your book you conclude by saying that if anything the stories you discovered and studied make you angry. Do you also see a bit of hope for this to change?

Caitlyn Collins: I do, I see a lot of hope. We have examples of places that have implemented more progressive policies and work culture, attitudes have shifted to be more egalitarian. I don’t think that this is impossible. I think we have to be realistic in the goal setting - for example, in the US we have no parental leave whatsoever - just us and Papua New Guinea are the only two countries on the planet that don’t have paid maternity leave. The fact that we are seeing a groundswell of support in for instance in presidential campaigns, for people to be thinking and talking about work-life family supports, these all for me are positive progress.

For example, right now in the Presidential campaign in the US, we have a ton of candidates who are working mothers and they are talking about their difficulties reconciling employment and motherhood as part of their message on the campaign trail. A generation ago, no one would ever do that. As a woman, you would have never mentioned your family responsibilities because it would call into question how dedicated you were to the campaign or the job. This is not the case anymore. People are again talking very openly about the need for more just policies and also the role of men stepping in and taking a larger chunk of responsibility to caregiving. We see an upsurge of support in that for families across the Western industrialised world. It is becoming more acceptable for example for men to carry their babies.

I do see positive change. I think men are understanding that they have been missing out by not being involved in family life in the way women have. People are realizing that families are struggling and federal change needs to happen to pass more progressive policies and so I think there is plenty of reason to be hopeful. What we need our folks in a position of power to leverage their power to help get these policies passed because working moms are exhausted and don't have time to call their legislators or run for office, or lobby their managers to pass more progressive policies. What we need for example is our men to work as advocates for women. For those who don't have children to advocate for more flexible working policies in the workplace. We need collective support and that needs to come from all different angles, not from those who are the most affected by the lack of policy supports.