First is the sameness theory. In a nutshell, women, aside from their obvious physical differences, are more alike than different. They are just as capable as men at handling school and work tasks. It’s unfair to deny them opportunities based on their sex.
It wasn’t so long ago, though, that this kind of discrimination was common practice. Actually, it often still is, but employers are somewhat more discreet today. In the sixties, for example, job ads were segregated by sex. Most of today’s labor laws that affect the rights of women to work were framed on the sameness assumption. This is why an employer can’t force a woman to take maternity leave or to quit her job when she’s pregnant.
Second, there’s the difference theory. Men and women are different. One of the key differences between men and women is that women are more likely to become caregivers. Because of this, goes the theory, women should be granted special privileges. It isn’t fair to expect female workers to behave the same as male workers because caregiving places women at a disadvantage. Taking care of families requires an investment of money and time that marginalizes women. In order to make things equal, we have to look at the result rather than the treatment itself, and the end (equality) justifies the means (extra advantages).
An example of this theory in action would be if an employer has a part-time track for mothers. But every time a man asks to cut back his hours, his request is denied because mothers with small children get priority. And all the workers on this track are paid at a much lower hourly rate.
There are, of course, problems with each of these approaches. If you use the sameness approach exclusively, it primarily benefits women who are not in a traditional role. Many employment laws are built upon this same-as-men premise. This is why most university professors who achieve tenure are childless and why medical schools and law schools are admitting equal numbers of men and women (and the women end up quitting when they have children).
But for the women who embrace motherhood (and at least 80% of women do become mothers at some point in their lives), the male ideal of working doesn’t work very well. It’s not that women have less ability than men. It’s that the demands of a family become incompatible with their jobs. So when they can’t or don’t want to perform to the “ideal” standard, they find themselves out of a job.
The difference approach has its failings as well. If you assign roles according to sex, it ironically can create more uniformity standards—if not between the sexes, then among them. Say a woman with lots of small children needs to work full-time because her husband is disabled (I know a couple of those). If her job won't promote her because she's a mother and they assume she's not interested, her pay will be less than a man’s in a similar situation. This is unfair because although she’s female, she needs to support her family just as much as the typical man would. She’s different from a man biologically, but in this case her needs are the same.
This approach can also fail men who don’t fit into the standard gender-assigned role. If a workplace is built on the ideal-worker assumption (you are my worker and therefore your time is unlimited), what happens to the man who doesn’t fit the mold? If he wants flexible hours to take his aging mother to the doctor or attend his daughter’s soccer games and his workplace refuses, what then? Men face more work-life conflict than ever before, but workplace demands are increasing.
So the sameness theory has failed many women, who don’t or can’t act like men. They sometimes end up poor or forced into situations they wouldn’t choose for themselves. And the difference theory hasn’t worked, either, especially for people who don’t fit into a pre-designed mold.
Williams suggests that rather than coming up with a new theory of how to change laws around the ideal-worker norm, it makes more sense to examine the norm itself. When women try to conform themselves to or differentiate themselves from men, it often fails because the workplace is usually a male-centric environment--not always, but often. It’s built around male bodies (i.e. equipment built for taller people), male patterns (i.e. long hours), and male expectations (i.e. an uninterrupted career trajectory).
So maybe the assumption that the more face-time equals more hard work has to go (besides, it’s not true—don’t most workplaces have at least one employee who comes into the office but spends most of the day on Facebook?). Maybe employers can assume that part-time workers are good workers, too, and not penalize them for cutting back. Maybe managers can try allowing more work to take place from home, and see what happens to their productivity.
Women are not all the same as men, but they are not all completely different from them, either. We’ve tried assuming each of these, and neither one has worked very well. So maybe we can assume nothing at all about women or men because of their sex and allow people to live their lives, accommodating work, family, and other responsibilities the best they can. And workplaces can stop assuming people don’t have lives.
And most of all, they can stop punishing them when they do.