In 1992, Ms. Foundation launched their project “Take Our Daughters to Work Day” as an effort to counter the impact of sexism, sex discrimination and gendered occupational segregation. Planned activities aimed to build young girls’ self-esteem, expose them to male-dominated professions, encourage them to enter highly paid and prestigious fields, and boost girls’ self-confidence by exposing them to women employed in nontraditional professions. In 2003, the Ms. Foundation incorporated boys into their educational program “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day,” which occurs on the fourth Thursday in April in the US and around November 7 in Canada. The foundation designed the program to enrich the educational experience of children by exposing them “to what a parent or mentor in their lives does during the work day” (http://daughtersandsonstowork.org
). For sheltered children of the well-to-do, the world of work is often a hidden and mysterious realm – one that keeps their mothers and fathers working late into the evening or demanding overnight travel. However, for girls and boys whose parents are among the women and men laboring in the low-paid service sector or the underground economy, going to work with mom and dad is more likely an everyday experience and one that will probably lower self-confidence, reduce expectations and damage self-esteem.
Some mothers and fathers have a long history of taking their children to work – sponsored not by the Ms. Foundation but by low wages and the lack of after-school care. This was immediately evident to me in my research on the children of domestic workers. One interviewee from this research project, Olivia, recounted going to work with her mother as a small child. Her mother worked as a live-in maid but, eventually, she negotiated room and board for weekend work and did paid day-work as a housecleaner throughout the gated community her employers resided in. Olivia's childhood memories of going to work with her mother contain stories of learning rules, which she had to do quickly.
I interviewed other adult children of domestic workers who recalled going to work with their mothers during the summer and holidays when school was not in session. Sometimes they accompanied their mothers in lieu of staying home alone, but, many times, they went to work alongside them. Sometimes their mothers’ employers recruited their sons to do yard work and their daughters to babysit. However, like other immigrants and parents of color employed in minimum-wage dead-end jobs, their mothers did not want to make their employment attractive to their children, nor did they want their children to be ashamed that their parent(s) worked hard to make ends meet. Immigrant Mexican fathers were employed as landscapers, construction workers, underground miners or shop mechanics working around toxic chemicals, in male-dominated occupations that offer higher wages than most female-dominated occupations but that can be extremely dangerous jobs. Fathers do not want their daughters working under hazardous conditions and frequently encourage their sons not to follow in their footsteps.
As in the stories I collected in my interviews, there are boys and girls in cities across the United States who wait at the end of the service counter until their moms finish their shift at cleaners’, restaurants, and beauty salons. In immigrant and refugee neighborhoods, girls and boys too young for work permits may help their parents doing piecework in their homes; they work as food vendors in the evening and on weekends, or wait for their mothers in sweatshops, garment factories or nail salons at the end of the school day. Often these same children serve as important interpreters for their parents negotiating working conditions and pay with mono-English-speaking employers or clients (Park
2005). In tobacco-growing states in the US (Human Rights Watch
corn-producing areas in western Quebec, Canada (Kielburger & Kielburger
2011), children as young as 12 and 13 years accompany their parents to the farms during the summer to work the fields, just as they did generations ago.
Celebrating a “Take Our Daughters to Work Day” makes sense in the US if we assume that the experiences of boy and girl children and their parents are universal, and only gender shapes and influences their childhood. However, assumptions around universal experiences of childhood and parenthood ignore the ways in which class, race and citizenship privilege some and disadvantage other families, neighborhoods, schools and workers. Only by denying these significant differences can one expect all girls and their parents to experience “Take Our Daughters to Work Day” and related activities similarly. Only by assuming that parents share the same gender-segregated working conditions, income and status in their occupations can an educational program aimed at exposing children to career opportunities advocate that children accompany their mothers and fathers to work. From its inception, the program focused on sex stratification and sex discrimination in the labor force and assumed a universal experience of girlhood and parenthood. Fundamentally, the “Take Our Daughter [or even our sons] to Work” program is flawed by the assumptions not only that parents taking their daughters to work will expose them to higher-paying male-dominated careers but that gender socialization is the major or sole source of social inequality that limits children's aspirations, ignoring class privilege, immigrant status or disability. While occupational segregation by gender continues to be a salient characteristic of the labor force, there are other forms of oppression intersecting in paid employment.
I will examine parenting and childhood to identify the insights intersectionality provides into the activities, experiences and people that most are familiar with on a daily basis. One place to begin is by identifying the barriers, obstacles and disadvantages some parents confront while caring for their children. The ability to fulfill society's social expectations is largely constrained or enhanced by parents’ economic, educational and other social positions in society, which in turn determine access to privilege or the degree of oppression they encounter.
The Rubik's Cube Metaphor
A helpful metaphor we might use is that of a Rubik's cube, which has six faces each covered by nine stickers. This visual of six solid colors, white, red, blue, orange, green and yellow, arranged in various combinations in which each face turns independently to mix up the colors, helps in conceptualizing different intersections. A Rubik's cube may be useful to conceptualize the rotating mix of identities and shifting systems of domination which result in certain social identities being more salient than others at a given time and place. A Rubik's cube does not capture the fluidity of systems of domination but it may be useful in visualizing multiple layers of domination and the intersection of systems of oppression.
The Rubik's cube might also serve to demonstrate ways in which sociologists use an intersectional approach to analyze the social dynamics of multiple identities interacting with societies’ social hierarchies. Of course, actual lived experience is not static but our analysis requires us to identify social identities and the interaction between different systems of inequality. We begin by recognizing each system of inequality as represented by one of the different colors (though the intersectional Rubik's cube is not necessarily limited to six systems). Once we assign a color to race, class, gender, sexuality, citizenship and abilities, we can begin to analyze the intersection of different dimensions of an individual's personhood. They are all social identities that increase privilege or disadvantages, and position one's access to opportunities. Our positions in various social settings determine the systems of inequality we face and the intersection of individuals’ statuses.
Begin to consider the combinations of race, class, gender, sexuality, citizenship and age. What obstacles do gay middle-class Latino fathers face in volunteering at their daughters’ first-grade activities? How does this differ from the situation of a heterosexual working poor white mother who is single? What are the different ways in which parents experience their daughters’ school's expectation that they volunteer? How do systems of inequality privilege some parents and disadvantage others? Intersectional analysis involves identifying social identities or social hierarchies and examining the systems of inequality that dominate particular social settings and social relationships. Power relationships in settings differ between individuals and groups, and at times privilege race, but, in another setting, class privilege is more pronounced. Intersectional analysis requires uncovering power, privilege and opportunity structures and examining their link to social identities.
Intersectional Analysis of the Inequalities in Parenting and Childhood
A single-axis analysis of inequalities experienced by parents or children only examines one category of a person's identity and results in a limited, one-dimensional and incomplete understanding of inequality. It is impossible to understand the effects of gender, age and class as the sum of “-isms.” For example, we do not understand the constraints a poor grandmother might face in caring for her grandchildren by adding up sexism, ageism and classism (i.e., sex + age + class). This grandmother experiences all aspects of her identity simultaneously rather than separate dimensions summed up. One-dimensional approaches have the consequence of creating specific aspects of personhood as the norm, such as being a middle-class grandmother. This erases important differences in the experiences of being a grandmother that occur when class interacts with gender and age. Consider, too, the experiences of 12-year-old children in school. Obviously, not all 12-year-old children experience the same personal rewards in school. White middle-class 12-year-olds may relate better to traditional textbooks based on their experiences of family life. Some working-class immigrant children of color may not relate to textbooks that describe a nuclear family with a father who leaves to work dressed in a suit carrying a briefcase. If these immigrant children are from a non-English-speaking country, it will be difficult for them to confront teachers speaking only English. It is essential to untangle the effects of many dimensions interacting simultaneously. Children who share the same social class but not the same religion, race or sexual orientation are not going to have experiences identical to those of other children the same age. The different social identities people have in society are complex but intersectionality provides a standpoint for making sociological sense of broad categories of people.
Race, class, gender and sexuality differences have real consequences in people's lived experiences and life chances for acquiring access to healthy food, quality education, excellent healthcare, and housing that provides a safe environment. If parents can afford to live in affluent neighborhoods, they are likely to have local grocery stores that carry fresh fruits and vegetables. Others live in what are termed “food deserts” – frequently, they shop at the corner store that does not have fresh produce. Increasingly, the working poor are isolated in suburbs, lack personal vehicles, and are faced with inadequate public transportation to get to shopping centers to purchase food. Affluent-neighborhood schools receive more funding, hire teachers that are more experienced, have the latest computer and science technology to offer students a college preparatory curriculum and provide course materials that confirm their white privilege. Upper- and middle-class parents are able to access good health and dental care and do not experience the inefficiencies in the healthcare system. The working poor find access limited to overcrowded emergency rooms. This is true for the majority of poor workers who are white. Populations of the working poor who are Asian, Muslim, African American or Latino/a face additional discriminatory treatment based on phenotype or dress.
Understanding parenting and childhood through the lens of intersectionality presents a more nuanced understanding of social inequalities. Intersectionality makes visible dynamics of privilege and subordination in changing circumstances. For instance, an African American father driving his daughter to a private school before heading to his office on Wall Street will probably not encounter the sexism, racism or classism that an African American mother faces while taking her daughter on the subway to an inner-city charter school before heading to her job as a dockworker. Race alone cannot explain their differences. Gender alone cannot describe their circumstances, nor can class. Being an upper-middle-class Black father is not the same racial experience as being a working-class Black mother. Similarly, their daughters’ experiences, if explained by only one or two of their social identities, are not complete. In addition, they share other social positions, such as being a citizen and non-disabled, among others.
Now, consider focusing on sexuality and intersectionality. Gay fathers, lesbian mothers or transgender parents experience a legal system that questions or denies their rights as parents, particularly custody or joint custody rights when divorcing straight partners. Low-income LGBTQ parents are frequently discriminated against when they participate in school activities designed for white middle-class heterosexual parents. If one or both of the parents are men or women of color, these social identities position them differently on the axis of privilege or subordination and they would also be concerned about protecting their children from homophobic forms of racism they may experience when engaging with family members, classmates, teachers and others. Forms of discrimination experienced in their neighborhoods, families and workplace depend upon access to race, class, and gender or citizenship privileges.
Another example would be intersectionality and citizenship status. During periods of strong anti-immigrant sentiment, racialized Latino parents encounter frequent citizenship inspection and humiliation in front of their children as they attempt to participate in school activities. This is compounded in interaction with police officers and access to social services available to other families. Latino families who have been citizens for generations are frequently profiled as undocumented and treated with disrespect. Undocumented immigrant parents with US-born children risk their livelihood and deportation if th...