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In Shriver Report, Stanford sociologist imagines better future

Mar 13 2014

“Stand up if you are the first person in your family to graduate from college!” 

The year is 2034, as imagined in sociologist Marianne Cooper’s visionary essay for The Shriver Report. A fictional young woman named Antonia rises to her feet. In the audience, Antonia’s six-year-old son is cheering. 

Antonia has worked her way through college as a single mother. She has benefitted from subsidized childcare, paid sick leave, flexible university policies, affordable healthcare and predictable hours at her job. With such a support system, she has been able to study software security and find a position out of college.

Also in the audience is Antonia’s mother, Dolores, who was a single mother as well. Back in the early 2000s, Dolores had no paid sick leave or affordable childcare. She often had to miss work to care for Antonia when Antonia was ill, so she frequently got fired and had to shuffle from job to job.

The latest volume of The Shriver Report, spearheaded by the journalist, author and producer Maria Shriver, is titled A Woman's Nation Pushes Back from the Brink, and was released in paperback this week. The book urges Americans to ask why our country lacks the social structure that enabled Antonia to thrive as a single mother. It is a collection of essays by advocates and experts of women’s rights, including Cooper, a sociologist at Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research.

No longer a ‘Leave-it-to-Beaver’ family

Cooper explains that The Shriver Report, as a whole, aims to “measure, benchmark, and bring attention” to interlocking inequalities of gender and class. For example, one in three American women live in or near poverty—the mothers of twenty-eight million children—contributing to the second-highest child poverty rate among developed nations, after Romania.

“The vast majority of families in the US no longer look like the ‘Leave-it-to-Beaver family,” with a breadwinning husband and a stay-at-home wife, Cooper says. “But our policies have not caught up.” 

For example, parents do not get paid time off when their child is sick, so they often have to choose between holding down a job and caring for their child, “which is really an impossible choice,” Cooper says. 

The Shriver Report documents the struggles of America’s “women on the brink”—women living in poverty or on the edge of poverty, struggling to care for their children or aging parents while also earning money. The report uses quantitative studies, striking black-and-white photographs, personal narratives, and policy analysis to shed light on the issue. 

Recommendations for individuals, companies and government

In addition to documenting the present, the report makes recommendations for the future—how America could move toward a future like Antonia’s. The recommendations form a “three-legged stool,” Cooper says, involving individuals, private companies, and the government.

For individuals, the report recommends high-school classes that teach students to handle money and “understand what’s really required to have a child and hold down a job,” Cooper says. The essay by sociologists Anthony P. Carnevale and Nicole Smith, for example, crunches numerical data to show the importance of college education to financial security—and to urge individual women not to shy away from well-paying majors in science, technology, engineering, and math. The report also urges men to parent equally, because women will never be equal outside the home until men contribute equally inside of it.

For private companies, The Shriver Report recommends providing employees with family-friendly work hours, predictable schedules, and a living wage. For example, an essay by Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, explains that Starbucks covers its employees’ healthcare and gives them stock in the company—an unusual move for an hourly employer. Some employees have used stock to pay for college or a home. 

For the government, The Shriver Report advocates providing affordable childcare, paid parental leave, and paid sick leave. As the essay by sociologist Riane Eisler and activist Kimlerly Otis notes, women perform the vast majority of care for children, the elderly, the sick and the disabled. While this work is socially and economically valuable, it is not only unpaid, but also comes at a huge opportunity cost to women who could be getting an education or working for pay. The Shriver Report advocates lightening this burden by providing more social support for parents.

Implementing the recommendations

These individual, corporate and government recommendations recast poverty among women as a national problem with an individual component, rather than solely as an individual problem. The biggest challenge to such reforms, Cooper says, is America’s individualistic political philosophy. “That’s an important belief and it sets us apart,” Cooper said, but it incorrectly presupposes “that individuals alone are solely responsible for what happens to them.” Cooper points out that some people cannot afford an education, and some parents have no choice but stop working to take care of a sick child. But there is reason to be hopeful about the proposed reforms as well. After Maria Shriver met with President Obama to discuss the report, President Obama championed wage equality for women in his 2014 State of the Union address and increased spending on early childhood education in his proposed budget.

The Shriver Report was published less than a year after Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s manifesto for women in the workplace, Lean In, for which Cooper was the lead researcher. With these two books, Cooper sees a growing national conversation about the challenges facing American women. Her hope? A future where women like Antonia can thrive.

A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.