WCW Blog

The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

Developing Babies’ Literacy Skills

BlogBabyTalkFriday, September 8, is International Literacy Day! In my opinion, every day should be called Literacy Day given its critical importance to all. This is especially true for very young children as developing language and pre-literacy skills are paramount to later academic success.

Parents, caregivers and other adults can do so much to help young children with these needed skills starting with their birth. Talking with babies before they even can use words helps them learn. Talking and discussing what you are doing while you are doing it, such as diapering, or preparing a bottle can become natural and spontaneous if done often enough. Conversations can happen throughout the day including times of bathing, playing, diapering, or feeding. Adults can talk with the infant and about what s/he sees or about what is happening. When you are outside, talk about what you see as well as what the baby is looking at. This joint referencing helps to teach the infant about the world by providing the words that go with an object or event. When very young, the adult follows the baby’s gaze, and at about six months, the baby is able to observe an adult’s gaze, look in the same direction and look at the same object. Experiences of joint referencing predict children’s understanding of words (receptive language) and well as their spoken vocabulary (expressive language).

Even singing helps babies with their language and literacy skills- no matter how well you sing. Silly songs can get babies’ attention, while repeating familiar songs can help calm and soothe them. You can even make up songs as it is the sound of your voice that is most important to the baby.

Reading27742524862 492ed3471a z and sharing books begins at birth. Try to read aloud to your baby every day! With the very young infant you may look at only one page of a book- in time, you can look together at two or more. Turning the pages, labeling pictures and describing what is happening on the page all lead to vocabulary and grammar development. Reading to your baby also predicts their early reading and writing skills! Cuddling together to read and share books is a very pleasant experience for both the infant and you! These very early enjoyable experiences can lead to a life-long love of reading. When there are plenty of books available, an infant may even try to look at the pictures in books on her/his own. And, remember your local library is a good source of books for your infant.

When a baby’s life is filled with talk, conversations, and books, the infant has a good start on the road to academic success.

Wendy Wagner Robeson, Ed.D., is a senior research scientist and member of the Work, Families and Children Team at the Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College. Her research focuses on child development, early care and education, and school readiness, with a focus on policy implications.

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Is Stress Making Us Sick?

pensivewoman

Recently, NPR, with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard School of Public Health, released a poll that found that one-quarter of Americans reported that they had experienced significant amounts of stress in the previous month. That level of stress is similar to levels found in earlier polls. But is this much stress making us sick? The poll found that 70% of people experiencing high levels of stress reported that they were sleeping less--not getting enough sleep can negatively affect health. Other research tells us even more about the possible health consequences of too much stress and our capacity to cope with it. One of the top three sources of stress in the NPR poll, for individuals reporting high levels of stress, was stress from work problems. We know that jobs that are very stressful, with too much to do, can contribute to health problems, but only when those demands or challenges are not offset by the resources and authority to make decisions about the work. In fact, jobs that are very challenging--and in which workers have the authority and resources they need--are good for our health. The bad jobs are those with heavy demands that you can’t address or that never end--or those jobs that have no challenge whatsoever, that involve repetitive or boring work, with no say over what work gets done when. Not surprisingly, in the NPR poll, people in lower-paid jobs, with annual incomes under $20,000, reported more stress from work problems than did those with incomes of $50,000 or more (64% of low-income individuals reported work stress, compared to 57% of higher income people).

Another factor in whether stress makes us sick is whether the stress is chronic or from a single event. Certain life events are very stressful, such as the death of a loved one or divorce; one-in-six people reported that the most stressful event in the previous year was the death of a loved one, and fewer than one-in-ten reported a life change or transition, such as divorce, was the most stressful event. However, ongoing stressful conditions, such as chronic health problems, being a single parent following divorce, or poverty, are more likely to blogpullquoteStressMakingUsSickwear away at our health and wellbeing. The NPR poll found that individuals with a chronic illness were more likely to report high stress in the previous month (36% compared to 26% overall), as were individuals living in poverty (36%) and single parents (35%). These chronic stressors tax our abilities to cope with stress. For those individuals with high levels of stress, problems with finances was one of the main sources of stress, and this was especially true for those living in poverty (70% reported financial stress), those with disabilities (64%) or in poor health (69%), and for women (58%, compared to 45% for men). Chronic stress can lead to wear and tear or allostatic load, which can suppress immune function and lead to susceptibility to disease.

The other major contributor to stress, according to the poll, was having too many responsibilities overall. While this can mean different things to different people, it’s interesting to note that women were more likely than men to say that this was one of the reasons they were so stressed in the previous month. One life situation that can give us that overload feeling is combining employment with raising a family. While many men and women find that combination to be beneficial – would you give up your family or choose to stop working? – there are circumstances when the combination can be a negative. Women and men can experience strain from the stresses of too much to do at work and at home. However, because women tend to spend more time in family labor than do men, women with young children and not enough support or resources at work or at home are particularly at risk.

Poverty, bad jobs, too many responsibilities— these can all contribute to poorer health; these stressors are not randomly experienced by everyone, but rather fall more heavily on those with less advantage and opportunity in their lives. In a 2010 review of the latest research on stress and health, Peggy Thoits argued that the greater exposure of members of less-advantaged groups (women, race-ethnic minorities, lower-income and working class individuals) to chronic or high stress was one of the reasons that we find poorer health among women, race-ethnic minorities, lower-income and working class individuals. There are many possible responses to this reality, but central to that must be recognizing the health consequences of high levels of stress and addressing some of the underlying stressors, such as inequality and injustice.

Nancy Marshall, Ed.D. is an Associate Director and Senior Research Scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) at Wellesley College. She leads the Work, Families and Children Team at WCW and is an Adjunct Associate Professor at Wellesley College.

 

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Opt-Out Revolution 2013

NYTimesMagCoverLast Sunday’s New York Times Magazine article provides a follow-up on the women of the so-called Opt-Out Revolution that the Times first heralded in 2003. The Times rightly points out the price these women have paid--and the forces that pushed them out in the first place--the culture of Motherhood and an inhospitable corporate culture among them. Erin Gloria Ryan, at Jezebel.com provides an even more pointed critique of the “promises” of opting out.

But both articles miss the most important point–the Opt-Out Revolution was not a “revolution,” it was a media creation that took a drop in employment rates among mothers of infants in the 2000 Census, and the experiences of a few women with husbands with high salaries during an economic period when the haves seemed to have it all--pre-Great Recession--and used that mythology to suggest that the reason women don’t fare as well in the workplace is because “they choose not to” (see the cover of the original NYT article). In fact, a study by Sharon Cohany and Emy Sok published in the Monthly Labor Review reported that the labor force participation rates of mothers of infants, with husbands earning in the top 20 percent of incomes, had the largest declines in 2000, but their participation only declined nine percentage points, from a high of 56 percent employed in 1997 to 47 percent in 2000, and 48 percent in 2005. While the decline was real, at least for women with husbands who could support the family, it was hardly a revolution.

blogpullquoteOpt OutRevolutionMeanwhile, media and popular attention remains focused on the message that women should solve the problems we face--of unfriendly workplaces, long work weeks, glass ceilings, and some men’s unequal sharing of household and parenting activities (often justified by workplaces that still think all men have wives who will support their husband’s careers)--by their personal, individual actions, rather than by our collective action to challenge the inequalities built into our economy, inequalities of gender, class and race. Women in the professions and in managerial jobs, who are most likely to be forced out, need redesigns of their fields to allow women--and men--during their parenthood years, to parent in the ways they value. There are top employers who have already figured out how to do this, including American Express, Johnson & Johnson, General Electric and Bristol-Myers Squibb. These changes to support working families need to be combined with changes that address the growing income disparity between the top 20 percent and the bottom 20 percent, and the consequences this has for financial well-being, as well as for the best interests of women, children, and men.

Nancy Marshall, Ed.D. is an Associate Director and Senior Research Scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) at Wellesley College. She leads the Work, Families and Children Team at WCW and is an Adjunct Associate Professor at Wellesley College.

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“Having it all,” “Lean in,” or “Work-life Balance”-- Asking the right questions

WorkingMomSheryl Sandberg’s recent book, Lean In, created a media frenzy. Before that, Ann-Marie Slaughter’s 2012 article in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” was hailed as another round in the Mommy Wars. It’s time to call a truce.

I’d like to begin with a brief personal history. When I was ten, my parents divorced. While my father provided some financial support, it was not enough to support four kids. So, when I was 13, my mother put my four-year old brother in nursery school and went back to work. I learned at my mother’s knee that women do what they need to do to take care of their families.

By the time I was 25, I had worked as a babysitter, cafeteria worker, sales clerk, library clerk, passport adjudicator, child care teacher, community organizer, drug program counselor, and research assistant. As a child of the second wave of the women’s movement, I had sung along to Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman, hear me roar. I knew about women’s work.

blogpullquoteAskingtheRightquestionsWhen I was 39, I gave birth to my daughter. I took a few months off with her, using up most of my sick leave, because this was pre-Family Medical Leave Act, and Wellesley College did not yet have paid parental leave. While at home, I discovered that parenthood was hard work, work that required a different rhythm than my paid work.

All of these experiences have informed my teaching and research on women’s experiences with paid work and family work.

Over the years, I have seen the question, “Can women have it all,” raised repeatedly. These debates have never been satisfying, because I felt they were asking the wrong question. The reality is that almost two-thirds of women with children under the age of six are employed. Overall, women’s rates of employment are fast approaching men’s. Moreover, employed women are even more likely than women not in the labor force to have children.

According to the research, for most women, as for most men, employment has its ups and downs. Good jobs contribute to health and well-being, including self-esteem and feelings of efficacy, and provide opportunities to make a contribution to others. Bad jobs are exhausting, mind- and body-numbing and bad for our health and the health of those around us. One of the questions employed women and men ask is, “How can I find and keep a good job, a career that I enjoy and value?”

But what about “having it all?” I hear many young women concerned about whether their job and career choices will jeopardize their future family, and whether their desire for a family will inhibit their ambitions.

The research clearly shows that combining paid work with raising children is actually a positive for most women and men. Paid work provides working parents with the income to raise their families, and can provide a sense of well-being that spills over to home, while providing a balance in their lives.

Even when combining work and family is stressful, most workers report more benefits from the combination than drawbacks. For the majority of women, and men, the question is, “how can I manage the stresses, and what can my employer do to support me to be the best worker as well as the best parent?”

Based on the research, I second Sheryl Sandberg’s advice: “don’t leave before you leave.”

However, for some parents, work and family is difficult to manage. Because mothers still do more of the day-to-day work of parenting young children, mothers of babies sometimes face more work-family conflict than they can manage, especially if they have very demanding jobs, or very demanding home lives, such as a baby who is sick more than other babies are. Parents with larger families, a serious illness or crisis in the family, or with one or both adults employed in demanding jobs, may find that home demands cannot be met while maintaining demanding jobs, and something needs to give.

For these people, the question is, “how can I manage caring for my family?” For Anne-Marie Slaughter, and others like her, the answer to that question was to make changes in their paid work. Dr. Slaughter chose to leave the Washington D.C circles of power for a full-time job as a professor, where she could be more available to her family; others choose to take time out from paid work, or to leave completely.

It’s time, then, to stop the media fascination with the “Mommy Wars.” No one wins in the current climate. Instead, we need to step up to the challenge of creating good jobs for all workers, and providing parents with needed supports, including family-friendly workplaces, as well as affordable child care and health care.

Nancy Marshall, Ed.D. is an Associate Director and Senior Research Scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) at Wellesley College. She leads the Work, Families and Children Team at WCW and is an Adjunct Associate Professor at Wellesley College.

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What Is A Woman Worth?

PayEquityBlog

Are you paid what you’re worth? How much do you earn? Is your paycheck fair?

These are the kinds of questions we don’t talk about in public, or even with co-workers. We might broach them with close friends or family, but many Americans don’t like to talk about whether our paychecks are fair. However, when women earn 77 cents for every dollar a man earns, and this gender wage gap holds at all levels of education, we have to ask what’s at play here. For Black and Latino women, the gap is even greater; Black women earn 70 cents for every dollar earned by men of all races, and Latinas earn only 60 cents.

Is it that women put family and children first, and that affects their pay, because they work part-time or take time out of the workforce? While women who work part-time or take time out of the workforce to experience a “motherhood penalty,” the majority of mothers are working full-time. Working mothers are as serious about their employment as are working fathers, in an economy where a second income is essential to maintain a standard of living that, decades ago, could have been supported by one income.

Perhaps the pay gap is because women “chose” to go into jobs or professions that pay less? Women are concentrated in relatively few occupations, such as nursing, teaching, administrative assistants, health aides, customer service and the like. This concentration of women in a few, predominantly female, occupations does hold wages down, because more women are competing for a more limited range of occupations. However, even when women work in the same occupations as men, they often earn less than the men.

These kinds of arguments about why women earn less than men are grounded in old ideas about what a woman is worth, and about women’s place in the world. When we devalue women’s family and community work, we also devalue the paid jobs that support families and communities, such as teaching and nursing. When we ask whether it's women’s choices that drive the pay gap, we’re ignoring the effects of discrimination enacted by others with the power to hire and fire.

According to the official blog of the U.S. Department of Labor, “Economists generally attribute about 40 percent of the pay gap to discrimination--making about 60 percent explained by differences between workers or their jobs.” That’s right, almost half of the pay gap is attributed to discrimination. Two bills that would address this discrimination are currently in committee and not likely to go further. The Fair Pay Act (S.168, H.R.438) is designed to end wage discrimination by requiring equal pay for comparable work. The Paycheck Fairness Act (S.84, blogpullquoteWomanWorthH.R.377) would strengthen the Equal Pay Act of 1963.

However, we don’t have to wait for Congress to act to address the issue of discrimination and pay equity. As workers, we can start talking to each other about what we earn, and whether we think that’s fair. As employers, we can reconsider the wage structure in our firm, and evaluate its fairness. As citizens, we can challenge the old ideas about what a woman, and women’s work, is worth, and encourage our daughters and sons to not limit their dreams to the old dreams, but to explore a wide range of occupations and follow their own interests.

Nancy Marshall, Ed.D., is an Associate Director and Senior Research Scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. She leads the Centers' Work, Families & Children team and teaches courses at Wellesley College on gender, employment and the sociology of children and youth.

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