Shay Chan Hodges is the author of Lean On and Lead, Mothering and Work in the 21st Century Economy, a collection of 30 first-person narratives providing deep, personal portrayals of what it takes to participate in the 21st century economy while raising children. This unique resource is presented in the interactive iBooks Store platform, with stories complemented by embedded widgets, including slideshows, interactive graphics, and audio and video interviews. Lean On and Lead also introduces Family-Centered Design℠ thinking, a conceptual framework for designing our society and economy around the real needs of families, rather than the other way around.  Shay lives on Maui with her husband and two sons, and writes, speaks, and consults about these issues. Connect further with her on Facebook and Twitter.

1MFWF: Lean On and Lead features narratives from parents about their experiences juggling career with child-rearing. Why did you choose to feature stories in your book?

Shay: In a recent Lean On and Lead review, a young mother states: “When it comes to practical realities and achieving balance, there are so many variables that just thinking about how to navigate obstacles and find solutions quickly becomes overwhelming and frustrating.  Every job has its own requirements, every woman her own set of talents, and every marital relationship and family its own circumstances. The topic is so nuanced that it is difficult to know where to even begin.”

I felt it was necessary to demonstrate the diversity of family life in Lean On and Lead through multiple stories because every family is unique in terms of numbers of children and their ages, parents’ ages, professions, socio-economic status, ethnicity, geography, options for flexibility, family health issues, and support from family members–and these and innumerable other factors impact the practical choices available to parents.

These stories also illustrate, however, that regardless of the range of circumstances, most families share the inherent conflict between the time required to financially support their children and the time needed to care for and nurture them. Thus, real solutions to balancing work and family life must include infrastructural and cultural change.

One of my interviewees sent me the following email after telling her story: “I feel like there’s no way NOT to develop certain conclusions about society and the cultural changes that need to take place.  The work-family balance is almost like the equality issue–something that is such a norm that we just all live our daily lives basically doing ‘work-arounds’ in order to survive and function, when really we should be changing the status quo to meet OUR needs.”

1MFWF: You note that discrimination and lack of support for women and mothers in the workplace is more than a female problem, but instead “an extraordinary economic oversight.” Why would expanding access to work flexibility and adopting other work/life solutions be better for the economy at large?

Shay: Women are clearly prepared to meet the country’s current and future economic needs. They have been outpacing men in college enrollment and degree attainment since the 1990s, and currently outnumber men in college by four to three. In 2012, 70 percent of mothers worked outside the home, and in 40 percent of households, the mother was the primary breadwinner. This means that whether or not working women are achieving the promise or benefits of their educations, they are increasingly responsible for their families’ financial welfare.

Yet due to gender pay inequities and cultural norms, lack of mandated paid family and sick leave policies, limited work flexibility, and unaffordable and unreliable child care, mothers often make the difficult decision of cutting back or dropping out of the work force. This “artificial drag” on the economy, as US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand calls it, results in a loss of intellectual and innovation capital for our society-at-large, and has enormous financial impacts for the woman herself and her family. Furthermore, when women earn less than they are due and participate less in the economy than they want to, every family member suffersincluding the males. And when families have less to spend, local and national economies suffer.

1MFWF: Title IX is commonly known for its role in increasing women’s participation in sports. But you explain that Title IX could have much broader implications for gender parity both in academia and the workplace—how so?

Shay: Title IX states that “no person in the United States shall on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subject to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” In addition to providing opportunities for girls and women in athletics, Title IX has been responsible for women’s astounding educational attainment over the last forty years. Yet much of the law’s potential remains unrealized, while the culture in academia continues to be male-oriented.

Title IX regulations apply to recruitment, hiring, tenure, pay rates, fringe benefits, scholarships, pregnancy leave and childbirth.  Because women face pervasive motherhood penalties on college campuses (even when they don’t have children), by requiring equitable promotion and pay, as well as pregnancy and birth accommodations, compliance with Title IX would significantly impact women’s academic and professional potential.

1MFWF: Your book focuses on women, motherhood, and US policy, but some of your interviewees are men, and some are based in other countries. Why?

Shay: In part because of biology, but mostly due to cultural, social, and economic constraints, women are still usually primary caregiversregardless of how much they work or earn.

Thus, the impacts of the intersection of work and parenting usually impact women more than men. Yet both mothers and fathers want more options. In most American families, more than one paycheck is required; both parents desire time with their children; either parent may have the educational capacity to participate in the workforce at a high level; and both men and women want to contribute to their communities. Inflexible gender roles limit choices for both parents and reduce the income potential for the whole family. I therefore felt it was important to include fathers’ perspectives.

I also thought it was important to tell the stories of parents living outside of the US because we tend to hold up other countries as examples when it comes to education, childcare, and leave policies. And while there is better support for families in much of the world, I think it’s important to look at policies from the perspective of parents’ real experiences. We need to be clear-eyed about what American familiesand what other familiesexperience so that we can determine what kinds of options will be most effective for our very diverse society.

1MFWF: Lean On and Lead is available in the Apple iBooks store in an interactive format that includes video, audio, interactive diagrams, and slide shows. Why did you choose this platform?

Shay: I chose to publish Lean On and Lead in this media-rich and interactive platform so that readers could engage fully with personal stories and yet have push-button access to authoritative research about women, parents, and the economy.

Appealing dynamic widgets and links provide opportunities to provide context, and broaden and deepen conversations. For example, when a single dad speaks about feeling isolated, widgets provide data on how many caregivers are single fathers. If parenting college students discuss their childcare situations, pop-up graphs show the high number of college students who are parents, and how many colleges offer day care. In most stories, widgets show the racial and gender demographics for professions represented, as well as average salaries for specific jobs. When a software CEO discusses her company’s location in Eugene, Oregon, widgets link to data about the tech industry and descriptions of the quality of life in her community.

By providing authentic stories and well-researched data, Lean On and Lead serves as a much-needed authoritative and robust resource that is engaging for a wide audiencenot just policy wonks and scholars.

Learn more from Shay about mothering and work:

photo credit: Shay Chan Hodges