The child care market was largely irrelevant to professional careers during the historical period when most professionals were White men with wives in the home performing unpaid work. Beginning in the 1960s, the large-scale entry of women into higher education and professional labor markets changed this situation. That change occurred in large measure because women continue to perform most unpaid child care in the home, while professional careers often demand long hours of paid work during the prime child-rearing years. Work and family therefore often appear as competing responsibilities.
Formal child care can serve as a bridge between these competing demands, permitting women to make commitments to both professional careers and children. However, it has been estimated by the National Council of Jewish Women that 80 percent of child care centers in the United States are of mediocre to poor quality, undercutting the value of this bridge.
Partly as a result of the shortfall of quality child care, many young women continue to view professional careers and family commitments as mutually exclusive. Professional women are less likely than professional men to have dependent children in the home, thereby sacrificing family for career. By the same token, many women who wish to rear children hold high levels of formal education yet do not enter professional careers, sacrificing career for family. These outcomes are unfair in the sense that men are rarely forced to choose between family formation and career; these outcomes are also inefficient, since much valuable talent and human capital are lost when parents abandon careers for family.
Beginning in the 1970s but with faster growth during the 1980s and 1990s, some corporations responded to these issues by developing on-site child care centers. Such centers are typically expensive on a per-child basis, in part because utilization rates are difficult to predict except in very large establishments. The single most important predictor for the implementation of on-site child care is the proportion of professional, technical, and managerial employees in the workplace. The long hours required by professional careers help explain the connection between these occupations and on-site child care. In addition, however, it seems likely that the high wages provided to many professionals and managers help make on-site child care economically viable. The flip side of this economic argument is the frequent complaint with regard to on-site child care that it is too expensive for nonprofessional employees to afford. In part due to the latter dynamic, on-site child care remains relatively rare.
More common among corporations are limited child care subsidies and programs providing referrals and other information relevant to the search for formal child care arrangements. These programs facilitate the employee’s ability to meet work responsibilities and may be associated with higher-quality child care.
An alternative route to the provision of child care is for parents to reduce their hours of employment while children are young, returning to full-time employment as children grow. Relevant reduced hours options attracted the term mommy track during the 1980s, a term denoting the fact that men rarely reduced working time in response to family responsibilities and denigrating the women who chose not to work long hours for their employers.
Regardless of these problems, the time arithmetic of professional careers and child care tends to drive researchers and policymakers back to reduced-hours options. If professionals are typically present in the workplace for 50 to 60 hours per week and spend another 10 hours per week commuting, the complete replacement of parenting time by paid providers involves 60 to 70 hours per week of formal child care. Most parents do not view such long hours of child care in a positive light, so they strive to reduce working time in one fashion or another.
Somewhat belatedly, men have also responded to these issues. Fathers in dual-earner couples increased their time devoted to child care by 6 hours per week between 1981 and 1997, such that men were performing 46 percent of all parental care by the end of the period.
It seems likely that some mixture of private market, mother, and father care will continue to provide the best options for professionals striving to simultaneously make and meet family commitments, perhaps with the help of limited tax subsidies from the government (i.e., Dependent Care Assistance Programs) and subsidies from employers. For young professionals seeking quality child care, the increasing acceptance and expectation of accreditation for child care centers by the National Association for the Education of Young Children must be viewed as a positive development. For women, a less positive note is sounded by the emergence of discriminatory behavior among employers against mothers, particularly against mothers attempting to sustain professional careers.
- Elder care practices
- Family-responsive workplace practices
- Flexible work arrangements
- Gender and careers
- Work-family conflict
- Deutsch, F. M. 1999. Having It All: How Equally Shared Parenting Works. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Fried, M. 1998. Taking Time: Parental Leave Policy and Corporate Culture. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
- Hochschild, A. R. 1989. The Second Shift. New York: Avon Press.
- Kelly, E. L. 2003. “The Strange History of Employer-sponsored Child Care: Interested Actors, Uncertainty, and the Transformation of Law in Organizational Fields.” American Journal of Sociology 109:606-649.
- National Council of Jewish Women 1999. Opening a New Window on Child Care. New York: Author.
- Williams, J. 1999. Unbending Gender: Why Work and Family Conflict and What to Do About It. New York: Oxford University Press.