Stanford philosopher seeks to create a more just and fair workplace for caregivers

Stanford scholar Sara Mrsny says philosophy can help American lawmakers develop policies that will make it easier for someone to both hold a job and perform caregiving functions.

Anthony Rosenberg / mother and child

Philosophy can help frame discussions around people in the workforce who are also caring for family members, a Stanford scholar says.

Nearly one third of Americans report assisting with the care of an elderly or disabled family member, relative or friend. In data from the Family Caregiver Alliance, workers report that they have turned down promotions, reduced work hours and even resigned due to personal obligations as caregivers.

While federal programs like the Family and Medical Leave Act and the National Family Caregiver Support Program mitigate some of the physical and financial tolls of caregiving, Stanford philosopher Sara Mrsny says that current policies leave the majority of caregivers in an unfair position.

Mrsny (pronounced mers-ny) is pursuing a philosophical investigation of the topic by examining research from the social sciences and other disciplines to make a case for why additional laws are needed that support caregivers and accommodate them in workplaces.

"Sociologists, economists and scholars in law and business document the problems that people, mainly women, face in trying to juggle work and family, and propose laws or workplace policies to ease the conflict," said Mrsny, a doctoral candidate in philosophy. "What they do not always do is explain why the disadvantages faced by caregivers are unfair and why the situation should be changed."

That's where philosophers come in.

Mrsny and her colleagues identify the just and fair ways of organizing a society and what values are important to consider when constructing institutions and laws.

"Philosophy," Mrsny said, "can help us clarify what is valuable about being able to hold a job while also caring for family members."

By taking an interdisciplinary approach, which incorporates an examination of sociological research relating to the topic, Mrsny hopes to present a strong basis of social justice critique and justification for why the caregiver accommodations in today's American workplace are unfair.

The existing academic literature "does not explain why caregiving and other forms of work should be made more compatible with each other," Mrsny said.

Once the key question of "why" is answered, she said, then the intellectual support and conversations necessary for policy change to take place will finally come to the surface.

Using philosophy to defend caregiver rights

A Geballe Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center, Mrsny is drawing upon "our best contemporary theories about what it means to treat people as equals – theories that have roots in the Enlightenment" to, as she put it, "argue that our commitment to equality requires us to better support caregivers even if becoming a caregiver is a choice."

Mrsny's research to date has revealed that there are two distinct strands of philosophy addressing issues of caregiver rights in the workplace: feminist philosophy and political philosophy.

Feminist philosophers have developed theories of justice or ethics that place a high value on caregiving while political philosophers highlight the importance of employment and participation in public life. Yet, no research currently exists that integrates both philosophical outlooks into a cohesive philosophic defense of caregiver rights.

Mrsny's work is part of a wider school of thought encapsulated by egalitarianism, currently the predominant strain of political philosophy. Contemporary egalitarian theories of justice argue that everyone participating in a political system ought to be treated equally and, Mrsny pointed out, "equality is an already recognized value in the American political system."

Therefore, she said, she believes that the egalitarian approach to looking into the problems of accommodating caregivers in the workplace is compatible with American values. The goal, she said, is to "apply existing theories about equality and institutional design" to the new population of caregivers that were overlooked when the original theories were developed.

The work of Stanford sociology Professor Shelley Correll documenting the so-called "motherhood penalty" has proven to be a valuable point of reference. Correll has identified a pay gap between mothers and childless women that is even larger than the pay gap between men and women. Mrsny's investigation illustrates why a pay penalty for caregivers is unjust, as well as the significance of findings like Correll's

Equality and freedom

As far back as the Enlightenment, philosophers such as Kant and Locke have been thinking through how to best balance the competing values of equality and freedom, a particularly resonant debate in the United States, where, as Mrsny put it, "we often talk about our commitment to the equality of citizens."

Mrsny is developing an argument for the implementation of policies that will lessen the disadvantages faced by many people who want to be workers and caregivers. In other words, Mrsny hopes her work might convince policymakers to introduce laws that will "make it easier for someone to both hold a job and perform caregiving functions."

Examples of such policies include flextime, parental leave and leave for caring for elderly family members, all of which would encourage "a cultural shift away from the importance of face-time in the workplace," Mrsny said.

This kind of shift, she said, is a "matter of fairness, of justice, and not simply a matter of redesigning businesses to be more efficient or granting citizens an optional perk when voter pressure gets strong enough."

Research inspired by a personal story

Growing up, Mrsny witnessed many of the women around her sacrificing career goals to raise children. Sometimes the decision to leave the workforce left these women vulnerable to abuse or economic devastation after divorce.

While studying theories of justice as part of her doctoral research, Mrsny realized that no theory adequately addressed what was wrong about the multiple injustices faced by the women she had known. As a result, Mrsny was motivated to bridge the gap.

Mrsny said she hopes that her work will eventually show how much philosophy and the social sciences need each other. Moral and social philosophy, she said, needs findings from the social sciences to show how different groups of people fare in different social systems.

"Conversely," she explained, "in a diverse society like ours in which people disagree about which inequalities are unfair, the social sciences need philosophy to show the significance of finding that a particular group is disadvantaged in some way. We can and should work together."

Camille Brown, an intern with the Human Experience, contributed to this story.

Corrie Goldman, Director of Humanities Communication: (650) 724-8156,