The School/Work Connection


Today I spoke with Craig Cohen on Houston Matters about synchronizing the school schedule to the work day, as part of a panel on year-round school. In May, Lisa Gray interviewed me for the Chronicle on related material.

Both of those discussions grew out of a  piece I posted last October on the Daily Beast  on the school/work connection — about rationalizing the school schedule to allow women to participate more fully in the workforce.  I’ve continued to work on this issue, where thoughtful change offers the possibility of lots of positive outcomes.  There wasn’t time to talk much on the radio today about how to pay for the schedule expansions I was outlining — but increased taxes from women’s expanded work, some new taxes, more allocation of current tax dollars to education, and investments on the part of business (social impact bonds are one potential road for that) are among the possible sources.

What do you think of the 52-week/year, 8am to 6pm schedule — with the chance to opt out of school after 4pm on school days, before 4 years old, and for any part of two flexible months in the summer?


Pay Equity Rules! Equal pay helps both workers, employers

Here’s my Point/Counterpoint piece on the Texas Equal Pay Act in this Saturday’s Houston Chronicle.
Unequal Pay imageEqual pay helps both workers, employers

This year’s elections are all about pay equity. At both federal and state levels, the debates may have different names (Affordable Care Act, pay discrimination, education, birth control access, jobs creation, voter ID laws, human trafficking) but they all affect how much money ends up in whose wallet and how that “who” differs by gender, race, class, age and state.

The current debate over the Texas Equal Pay Act, legislation that Gov. Rick Perry vetoed last year, is just one tip of the iceberg – but important, both for the specifics it addresses and for the attitude it signals.

While this bill’s provisions can’t guarantee that all people are paid equally for the same work, it would fix some discrimination and would supply incentive for employers to aim for equity. With that on the books, more bills would follow to level the playing field for all Texas workers, to the benefit of business and the state as a whole. Striking it from the books marks the state as a civic throwback with no sense of the workforce needs of the very employers it seeks to attract. To recruit and retain good female workers in all job categories, Texas needs to be up-front on equity. Equity is a basic need on the home-front as well, as wage discrimination costs not just women but the whole family.

Backstory: The 2009 federal Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act fixed a problem introduced by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found the law only allowed suits within 180 days of the first discriminatory paycheck, even if the victim didn’t know of the discrimination until later. Given that some laws also make it illegal for many employees to ask about their co-workers’ pay, this is a very cynical interpretation, ensuring continued discrimination. Before the Ledbetter decision, it was assumed that every discriminatory paycheck was a new offense and that a person had 180 days from every such check to file suit. The Ledbetter Act didn’t break any new ground – it just returned us to the status quo ante, by specifying that every new discriminatory paycheck is indeed a new crime, one that can be sorted out in federal court.

Texas law parallels the Supreme Court ruling. In other words, lawsuits are allowed only within 180 days of the first discriminatory paycheck, an injustice that state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, sought to remedy in the 2013 legislative session. Thompson’s bill, HB 950, passed with bipartisan support and would have allowed women to sue their employers in state court within 180 days of the most recent discriminatory check. State courts are considered better for plaintiffs because federal court dates are harder to come by. But Perry vetoed the bill, an action advocated by retailers such as Macy’s and Kroger.

While equal pay sounds like a basic right no American would question, we all know our economy was built on unequal pay. Like race, gender has historically also been a work-stratification system – both in terms of the kinds of jobs people are trained for and assigned and of the level of pay. Women’s employment long was defined by what they were already doing at home for free – bearing and rearing the workers. As women moved into paid work, they found that the only jobs available mirrored their home work, and their pay echoed the cheap home rate, too, because their labor was seen to be just “worth less.” Paying them less also had the ancillary effect of keeping them “too busy” to do much else than work extra hours to make up for the lost wages.

Gradually, as women have trickled up into policy-making roles, things have changed, and nowadays not all women get pushed into low-wage occupations, though many still do. As more women move into the statehouse and the so-called C-suite of top executives, equity increasingly is discussed, where before it was ignored. It matters who’s in the room when policy is made.

All players in Texas’ mid-term election have endorsed the principle of pay equity. If they mean it, there’s no good reason not to give that principle teeth and enact the Equal Pay Act. Discrimination is illegal. And while equal pay might cost some employers more in the short term, in the long term, all employers benefit from the rising tide of purchases made by employees with more money in their pockets and from the rising tax base that supports Texas business infrastructure. As gubernatorial candidate and state Attorney General Greg Abbott recently has learned, discriminatory pay is widespread, and only by giving laws teeth do we motivate employers to rectify their inequities and avoid lawsuits. We do have an amazing community of skilled and innovative women leaders in Texas. But we also have lots of work and thinking still to do around how to allow more women and men to choose their professions based not on stereotypes but on actual skills and propensities, and to reconsider why certain “female” jobs are paid so little to begin with.

It’s time to remove the external obstacles to women’s success in the workplace and move Texas toward a new era of prosperity through equity.



The New Mixed Parentage: Evolution Now


Here’s a recent story from the New York Times about the ethics of mixing the genes of multiple (more than 2) parents to form one child, through cytoplasmic transfer. In this case the point is to replace genes that would lead to illness with healthy genes from a donor, but otherwise to pass on the healthy genes of the intentional parents. This story is just a tip of the iceberg of debates over the ethics of fertility intervention to come in the next decade and onward.

Like all roads to parenthood that involve third (or more) parties, gene mixing pushes the barriers of familiar structures and raises existential questions about who we are.  By expanding the set of parents as we’ve done of late to include sperm and egg donors, surrogates, adoptive, foster, step and birth parents, and now individual gene donors, we widen our vision of family.

While the immediate effect is to include the a few more people in our individual relationship sets, the ripple effect can intensify our sense of our links to all our fellow humans – and even beyond.  By reminding us that we are made of sharable materials that have been recycled and repurposed around the globe and across eons, this kind of innovation can raise consciousness of our connections to ancestors as well as to our “unrelated” contemporaries.  At the same time such innovation can shift our thinking from the anthrocentric to the anthrodecentric, reminding us of our status as precipitates of the core entity Earth, to the ecology of which we contribute in ways we understand in only small degree.

This melting of familial barriers through mixed parentage at molecular and affective levels works in ways similar to the ongoing processes of social acceptance of “race” mixing (a process that’s occurred both willingly and by force whenever members of different “races” have shared spaces, but which has not always been acknowledged or respected). These discussions are always shadowed by the distorted use of the term race to distinguish by color among members of the single human race. There are many ways to go with these parallels.

Technological advances like cytoplasmic transfer are a form of evolution — externalized. Externalized evolution operates in the same experimental way as the internalized kind but it can have wide effect over a much shorter time span if doctors implement change in many patients. This kind of evolution is not unnatural, since it is also the product of the human organism, but rather than being accidental, it’s the intentional product of human decision makers enabled by advances in technology. Technology (or tool) use being, after all, an emblematic human quality.

Of course, where problematic genetic mutations that occur by accident are generally quickly excluded from the set of those passed on in the internal evolution model, there’s a much higher risk of errors being passed on to many via external means. Since it may take a while for innovations to express their problematic aspects, the difference in speed of application offers the possibility of both enormous benefit and enormous loss. While human evolution played out over millions of years, humans in possession of not just language but writing (a game-changer among tools) have only been around for about 4,000 years, enabling an enormous speed up in our technological advances through shared focus of many people on solving problems (like a huge group of linked computers). This speed up qualitatively changes the experimental nature of evolution–hence the ethical questions. Can we presume to know enough about the effects of an intervention to apply it widely, without having actually seen the longterm sequelae in even a few cases?

Lots more discussion of all these interconnected issues to come, quickly. And, as ever, fertility dynamics are core issues.

This post was substantially revised and expanded on Dec. 18, 2013.


Fertility Continues Decline in 2013

Birthrate still falling.

Birthrate still falling.

The fertility rate fell markedly between 2007 and 2010, tracking the economic downturn, and has continued to decline through June 2013, though at a slower rate, the CDC reports. Following up on its recent in-depth report on births and fertility rates through December 2012, the CDC released its snapshot of the first half of 2013 this week.  The fertility rate hit a new all time low in June 2013, at 62.7 births per thousand fertile women 15-44.  Actual births fell minimally, from 3,944,000 in the 12-month period ending in June 2012 to 3,941,000 for the 12-month period ending in June 2013 (contradicting one prediction that they would rise).

The snapshot does not give details on the ages of the women involved – so we must cool our heels waiting for news on whether the fall has continued to occur mostly among younger women, or not.  Stay tuned to track when and if an economic upswing moves more women family-ward, or if the lack of affordable childcare and the attractions of increased pay keep them on the b.c. for the long term.

Anybody else find it odd how the recent push to deny women birth control parallels the increased use thereof?  Is raising the birthrate part of the aim of the anti-birth-control faction, or would it be just a byproduct?

Another recent CDC report, comparing pregnancy rates and pregnancy outcomes across several decades, indicates that the rate of abortions fell almost continuously between 1990 and 2009 (latest data)  — indicating that some combination of birth control and abstinence was active in the recent decline in births and in fertility rates.


Gender & Work Update

Here’s a lively summary of the last 50 years of change in the gendering of work & the recent lack of change in the rates of women’s participation in the paid work world, by sociologist and blogger Philip Cohen (

Cohen particularly focuses on the need to move men into traditional “women’s work” to balance out the move of women into traditional “men’s work.” That would be key to re-valuing all the necessary tasks — but part of that would also mean paying (both women and men) more for that historically underpaid (or unpaid) family labor.

He does feature the need for more support for childcare at the close – along with reduced work hours and paid family leave. I’d of course put even more emphasis on the need to expand access to good, affordable care for all families, from 3 months on and mimicking the full time work schedule (8:30 to 5:30, 12 months of the year).

See also: LEAN ON: Expand the School Schedule & Raise GDP
Fair Pay, Fertile Future


Lean ON: Expand the School Schedule & Raise GDP

We_Can_Do_It!My new piece on the Daily Beast makes two arguments:

  • the current national school schedule forces women out of the work stream,
  • and women can use the clout we’ve amassed to date to change things now.

Though the mismatch of school and work schedules is obvious, it’s not much mentioned, if at all, in discussions of how to change the dynamics of women’s work to allow more women to  stay at work full time and gain the benefits of that “reliability” (like an end to the gender pay gap and a greater chance to move up into the C-suite where they could evolve policy further to meet the needs of 21st century families).

Instead of focusing on making parent’s work schedules “flexible” in order to accommodate school, let’s reverse the picture and make school more consistent, to accommodate work.  This proposal also has the major benefit of providing early childhood education to the huge proportion of our children currently in bad care or at home with parents who cannot provide them with the resources they need to enter Kindergarten ready to learn.

Of course the proposal will raise hackles.  Kids are in school too much already, not too little, some will insist.  They need more efficient teaching, not more time…. Any school schedule change is a tinder box — here, as in France.  Since thinking about one change reminds us of our huge set of inadequacies in the education realm, it’s generally easier to let the status quo stand.

But if you actually want to solve problems, you have to address them.  Expanded school days could be organized to provide a range of activities, not just standard class time (including homework, sports, arts, play, and tutoring time).

These all would involve expanded costs, and there are a range of means of paying for them — which would need debate. For starters: The additional taxes (payroll, sales and property taxes) brought in from the increased wages earned by the women who return to or never leave work once this schedule starts, could cover much if not all of the additional costs. Any remainder could be made up through sliding scale payments and expanded education investments by the state, the municipality and the feds. What will no doubt soon become our chastened and responsible Congress can hammer out the details.

Of course startup funds would be required to build a nation’s worth of good childcare facilities, to upgrade extant school buildings for summer operations and to train a few hundred thousand skilled childcare and preschool teachers. But these jobs would create their own economic stimulus, putting money into the pockets of construction workers and teachers, who would spend it in their communities. The long-term positive economic effects of improved education for the nation’s children and of their mothers’ new freedom to build solid careers would be enormous.

The investment in children’s education would result in across the board benefits: to the economy, to the nation’s ability to innovate to meet emerging challenges (of which there are so many), and to the quality of citizen’s lives.

The way to get this done?  Women have to step up, and use the power they’ve accrued over the past few decades of struggle in the workplace.

Enough with the debates over whether or not we need to “lean in” to overcome internal obstacles that hold women back at work.  Enough with complaints that change will only come when a woman is elected president.  Time to focus on putting our existent muscle to work to lean on business and government to evaporate the many external obstacles to women’s and children’s success within our work and education realms as currently structured.  We can do it. 


Older Women Having More Kids, Younger Women Still Having Fewer

Fertility Rate Stabilizes as the Economy Grows” — read the NY Times headline last month, over its report on the on the CDC preliminary report on births in 2012.  They went to explain both that “an improving economy encouraged Americans to resume having babies” and that “[t]he number of babies born in the United States in 2012 remained flat.”

The first statement is partially true – the group of people who “resumed having babies” is women 30 and over, while women 29 and under were still having fewer than ever.  The second statement is pretty much true – the rate declined only marginally.  The 2012 rate is nevertheless the lowest ever recorded in the US, coming in at 63.0 births / 1000 women aged 15-44, as opposed to the earlier all-time low, 63.2 in 2011.

Here’s a visual to give a sense of how the overall decline continues at the lower end of the age span, and has swung up a bit at the far end:

Birth Rates by Age of Mother, 2007-2012.pptx

As you can see, the rates fell in all groups but those 40+ at the start of the recession, but have since begun to swing up again among women in their 30s.

Since 2007, the rate for women 15-19 fell 29%, the rate for women 20-24 fell 21%, for women 24-29 the rate fell 10%, for women 30-34 it fell 3.3%, including the 1% rise between 2011 and 2012.  The rate for women 35-39 fell initially but rose in the past two years, for an overall gain since 2007 of 1.5%. The rate for women 40-44 never fell, and has risen 8.3% since 2007.  Rates for women 45+ stayed steady.

The Total Fertility Rate (the total number of children the average woman would have at the current rate) fell to 1.88—a bit below the replacement rate of 2.1.  But because the large part of the decline is among younger women, there is good reason to expect that rate to rise, if they follow the time-lag pattern of delayers before them, who’ve had children once they completed their educations and established in their careers.  Provided, of course, that the economy continues to improve.

Here’s another chart, representing the actual birth numbers by age of mother, rather than birth rates, in lines rather than columns —  since 1996.

births by age of mom, 1996-2012

Following up on the rate info above, the changes in the numbers of births by age of mother between 2007 and 2012 are as follows:

1-14 the numbers have fallen by 2,521 / 15-19 down by 139,479 births /20-24 down by 165,486 / 25-29 down by 84,398 / 30-34 up by 51,542 /35-39 down 27,708 / 40-44 up by 4,356.

Since different numbers of people appear in each age group each year, the number can go down even though the birth rate goes up (as with the 35-39 year olds), and vice versa (as with the 30-34 year olds).  Likewise a group that starts with a fairly low number of births can have a big percentage rise, but show a low gain in actual numbers (as with the 40-44 year olds).   When a group with big numbers has a big rate fall, you do see a big decline – so the total decline in births between 2007 and 2012 is 363,295 (there were that many fewer births in 2012 than in 2007, which was itself unusually high).

Numbers of births overall