On Our Ethical Duty: Re-Framing the Debate Surrounding Professional, Working Mothers

Working Mother[IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A woman is displayed, though the two halves of her body are depicted as doing two, different things. On the left, she is styled more informally and feeds her baby with a bottle. On the right, she is styled professionally and types on a laptop.]

According to technology theorist Sherry Turkle’s monograph Alone Together, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has observed that moral decision-making isn’t about responding to ethical quandaries posed in public debate; rather, moral decision-making entails examining the ways in which issues are framed. For, the of framing issues “‘describ[es] a situation, and thus determin[es] that there’s a [particular] decision to be made’” (260). This insight about the framing of issues is especially useful vis-a-vis the debate over “elite” mothers and their careers in America.

Conventionally, the relationship between elite mothers and their careers has been framed as well-educated mothers “‘opting-out’ of the workforce or choosing to sideline their careers on the mommy-track” (177). Yet, scholars such as Julia Wilson have noted that the framing of this relationship between elite mothers and their careers is faulty. As Wilson reports, “elite professional women are more likely to be ‘pushed out’ of the workforce [by systemic and cultural barriers] than to ‘opt-out’ [voluntarily]” (182). Considered thusly, it is clear that the debate over the relation between elite mothers and their careers must be re-framed in order to fully elucidate the problems at hand.

Until we reject the women-choosing-to-opt-out frame, the public will not grapple with the institutional and cultural barriers which derail women’s career advancement. In foregrounding mothers’ (ostensible) choice, the prevailing frame obscures the marginalizing dynamic of systemic oppression. After all, when women leaving the workforce is deemed a willful choice, no reform if necessary because no oppression is thought to have occurred. The oppressive lack of affordable childcare and/or inflexible cultural expectations surrounding motherhood are never addressed because the dominant frame depicts these as unrelated to the problem. Hence, this debate must be re-framed as a battle against the systemic oppression of professional women. Doing so would emphasize the role of institutions and culture rather than women’s not-so-free choices.

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