In a recent (and much-talked-about) New York Times op-ed, "Why Gender Equality Stalled," Stephanie Coontz identified the lack of many institutional protections -- guaranteed paid leave for new parents, restrictions on hourly wage and benefit reductions for part-time workers, flexible work environments and limits on the maximum length of the workweek -- as contributing factors to the halted progress toward gender equality. Further, she said, the pervasive wage gap and maternal job prejudice exacerbate the disparity in equality and the ability for both women and men to balance work and life priorities.
But there's another missing component that could revolutionize women's ability to achieve economic parity: access to high-quality, affordable and flexible child care.
As Coontz pointed out, when equality isn't logistically possible, women are much more likely to assume primary parenting responsibilities -- quite often at the expense of their careers.
Why do women who otherwise desire a career drop out of the workforce? Coontz argues that it's often a "reasonable response to the fact that our political and economic institutions lag way behind our personal ideas." Indeed, that's true.
But, for many women, insurmountable child care costs force their decision. Imagine the accomplished teacher whose salary doesn't cover child care costs for her two young children. As it turns out, average child care fees exceed average housing costs among families with two children. In most states, the average annual cost for an infant in center-based care exceeds public college tuition. It's easy to see that for some women, particularly those segregated in lower-paying jobs, it's financially more beneficial (even if not personally preferable) to stay at home.
Yet, these choices -- however influenced by family or employer-induced barriers -- apply only to two-parent homes. Consider the challenges of families headed by a single mother. Many of these women struggle to afford the child care they need to continue earning their family's only paycheck. Shift-workers, like restaurant servers, face additional obstacles in finding child care that is flexible enough to meet their unpredictable schedules.
The U.S. lags far behind other industrialized nations in establishing a functional child care system. That's why President Obama's recent proposal to provide universal access to preschool is encouraging. While it doesn't completely address the needs of the 11 million children younger than 5 utilizing child care each week, it's a step in the right direction for women and families.
Not only does preschool improve the educational trajectory of young children, but universal access to preschool would eliminate one barrier to women's equality in the workforce -- at least, beyond a child's first three years of life. The work-life policies that Coontz seeks must be accompanied by increased public investment in child care and early education, particularly for the most marginalized women.
Coontz cited Pew Research Center statistics showing that in 2011, two-thirds of younger women said that in addition to having a family, being successful in a high-paying career or profession was "very important" or "one of the most important things" in their lives. Fifty years after The Feminine Mystique, we ought to make our dreams our priority.