Clarification to This Article
An earlier version of this column said that the proportion of working mothers with children grew from 40 percent in 1970 to 69 percent in 2007. In 1970, 40 percent of married women with children participated in the labor force; in 2007, 69 percent did. The version below has been updated.

Women's success tied to household help

Thursday, January 20, 2011

This is the story of four ambitious professional women and a maid.

The women are Amy Chua, Meg Whitman, Sonia Chang and my wife. They don't share a single maid but a common theme, one true for most hard-charging professional women: Domestic help has been critical in their success as workers and mothers.

This is the case regardless of whether they use American childrearing practices or the Asian ones that Chua addresses in her provocative new book, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother." And in America today, domestic help usually means an immigrant, often here illegally.

Women's liberation, of course, doesn't owe its success to immigrant maids. But they helped. In 1970, 40 percent of married women with children participated in the labor force; in 2007, 69 percent did. The number of domestic workers grew right behind it, according to the International Labor Organization. Unskilled African American women, meanwhile, largely turned against being the household help, and after 1970, according to the Domestic Workers United union, the field became dominated by droves of arriving immigrants.

The number of domestic workers grew right behind it, according to the International Labor Organization and the Pew Hispanic Center's reading of census numbers. One domestic workers union found that the composition of maids changed from African-American-dominated to immigrant-dominated around 1970.

A study last year by Patricia Cortes, an economist at Boston University, found that low-skilled immigration has allowed women in the top 25 percent of female wage earners to work longer hours at the office, if only because they use a maid a few hours a week to help with cleaning. Cortes found that the most highly skilled women, such as doctors, lawyers and MBAs, use cheap immigrant labor extensively at home, allowing them to put in the 50- and 60-hour workweeks that have helped more of these women break the glass ceiling and get top jobs.

This was the story behind Meg Whitman's rise to CEO of eBay and her candidacy last year for governor of California. Whitman was leading in the polls until it was revealed in September that she had fired her longtime Latina housekeeper for being undocumented.

It was not only Hispanics who abandoned Whitman but also Anglo female professionals and ladies who lunch. Their reliance on the Latina housekeeper, who is now iconic in California, led them to see Whitman as disloyal.

This is where my wife comes in. She is a New Yorker, and the Latina maid is entrenched there and in other big cities, too. Years ago, when our two daughters were small, we hired a young Paraguayan woman, Mabel Galeano, as a nanny and housekeeper. My wife was a senior music executive who worked late and traveled a lot, as did I.

We soon learned that Mabel was in the country illegally. We sponsored her for a green card and helped her take English and computer courses, in part because my wife felt that she owed her career success to Mabel: My wife didn't have to rush to the day-care center before 6 p.m. or forgo business trips. When home, she was able to focus on our daughters and not on chores.

Today, Mabel is a U.S. citizen with her own family and a good job managing the household staffs of wealthy families.

Working Asian mothers have the same work-life concerns, as Sonia Chang attests. She is a 38-year-old Korean American brand manager for Samsung, and I happen to be sitting next to her on a plane as I write this.

For her business trip to London, Chang has left her 3-year-old son with her husband and an elderly Korean babysitter. Still, Chang is worried, and she wonders whether their family should move to Korea so that grandparents can help with the children as she tries to move up the career ladder. Asians traditionally rely on extended family for help, but the moving around of modern careers is ending that practice for them as it has for many Americans.

Much recent discussion about Amy Chua's book has centered on whether her Asian parenting practices are too harsh. But separate from that, it's a serious issue that the U.S. economy will suffer if talented American women leave their jobs or cut back on their hours because of a lack of affordable help at home.

All this suggests a serious need to legalize the immigrant domestic workers here illegally, and to set up a temporary worker program for more. It also suggests that women, who favor legalization more than men, need to speak up in the immigration debate.

Chua is a distinguished Yale law professor who had a Chinese nanny for her children. She was previously best known for a book in which she found that the major empires of history rose when they were tolerant to immigrants and declined when they weren't. Somewhere, maids fit into that.

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