Vol. 30 No. 3 (April 2020) pp. 41-46

THE BALANCE GAP: WORKING MOTHERS AND THE LIMITS OF THE LAW, by Sarah Cote Hampson. Palo Alto, California: Stanford University Press, 2017. 184pp. Cloth: $24.00 ISBN: 9781503602151.

Reviewed by Renee A. Cramer, Law, Politics, & Society, Drake University. Email:

Since its publication in 2017, Sarah Cote Hampson’s book THE BALANCE GAP: WORKING MOTHERS AND THE LIMITS OF LAW has become one that I return to frequently. I have taught it on several occasions (in courses as varied as introductory Law and Politics classes and our Senior Seminar, as well as in Reproductive Law and Politics), and I am referencing it extensively in preparation of a new book manuscript that examines, in part, the limits of legislation and regulatory policy in achieving gender equitable change. For me, THE BALANCE GAP has endured so well because of the outstanding way that Hampson combines case study methodology with interview data in a theoretically rich analysis that moves public law, political science, and sociolegal scholarship forward, while contributing to policy conversations in the service of the public good.

Hampson’s main focus in THE BALANCE GAP is whether and when women access family leave policies in their workplace. She argues that understanding women’s decision making in these regards can help scholars understand the relationship between legal consciousness and legal mobilization; it can also help policymakers and advocates understand the limits of law in accomplishing gender justice. The book is compelling, and hopeful – even as the main finding is depressing. Simply put, Hampson’s research shows that women often do not access the leave available to them because they understand that to do so will highlight the gap between their (often excellent) work ethic and accomplishments, and the ethic and accomplishments required of an “ideal” (read: unencumbered and hyper-focused male) worker.

Hampson’s data collection occurs via long, semi-structured interviews with academic and military women. She interviews female faculty at public universities, and female soldiers in several branches of the military. Rather surprisingly, these are apt sites of comparison. Both public university faculty and military soldiers are employed by the public for the public good, and both are sites where women have traditionally been underrepresented in the workforce. [*42] In both the military and the academy, standards for promotion are often bureaucratically (if not clearly) delineated and hierarchy (rank) and status are paramount. Both employers often have policies for gender equality in place, policies facilitating maternity leave key among them. The Introduction does a good job of walking the reader through site selection and the interview process, as well as concisely articulating the theoretical contributions the book makes to our fields.

Indeed, Hampson’s interview data is rich, and relayed with urgency and compassion. Chapter One reports the experiences of women in higher education; Chapter Two shows how women navigate similar rules in the military. Throughout the book, the words of these mothers/workers jump off the page, pointing to the ways that mothers are marginalized in multiple ways: as workers by the perception that they will no longer take their jobs seriously; as mothers by the perception that they care more for their job than their families; and across the board by policies that put them at risk for losing their jobs by not gaining tenure, or by retribution from peers for being assumed to seek to avoid deployment when their children are infants, or being “on sabbatical” rather than maternity leave. As Paige, a 49-year-old associate professor, told Hampson, “I wasn’t going to try to have kids before tenure, because I just didn’t feel secure… I just literally didn’t know if I would get tenure or not, and if I had a baby and didn’t get tenure, then what would we do...?” (p. 82). Later in the book, Hampson quotes Valerie, a visiting assistant professor, who tells her, “I did have someone tell me, you know, ‘People have trouble taking moms seriously, and they won’t take you seriously if they see you walking around with your son. They won’t think you take the job seriously’” (p. 112). And Hampson begins Chapter Two with a quote from “Chloe,” a thirty-seven -year-old Air Force captain, and mother of four, who said in her interview, “When I came back to work after I had the twins, the leadership was fine ... but my peers – I was treated like, ‘Oh you’ve been off, you’ve been on vacation the whole time; now it’s your turn to do the work!” (p. 42).

All of these women – Paige, Valerie, and Chloe – had access to policies that enabled them to stop their tenure clock, bring their children to campus during emergencies, and take medical and family leave. All of them reported feeling hesitant to access those policies. In nuanced elaboration of these quotes, and others, Hampson discusses how deployment for military moms and tenure clock pressures for academic moms complicate the taking of leave and the ability of women to access policies meant to help them balance both parenting and working. [*43]

What, Hampson asks, is going on? Why are policies that are meant to facilitate women taking leave failing to achieve their goals? Why are women hesitant to access policies meant to help them have both – a career and a family?

Chapters Three, Four, and Five (respectively) of THE BALANCE GAP examine this phenomenon in light of institutional contexts, ideologies, and instrumental action in order to show the constitutive relationship between the three in the construction of legal consciousness and mobilization. Hampson argues that there are informal mechanisms that instruct women about the validity of accessing formal policy. She shows how those informal mechanisms are reinforced by cultural contexts that value particular kinds of workers; these “ideal workers” are unencumbered men that are devoted to the job over family. Hampson notes that women aren’t idly accepting of these contextual messages – but acknowledges that they might ignore them at their own peril. Developing a theory of “institutional consciousness networks,” Hampson argues that “individuals intentionally seek to influence their own legal consciousness and the legal consciousness of those around them within a particular institutional and policy context,” in a way that is important for scholars and policy makers/advocates to understand (p. 62). As Hampson notes, “policies that aim to improve work/life balance are often created with the hope that changes in structural support for women in the workplace will foster social changes to also take effect at work… increas[ing] women’s participation in the workplace… [and] also help[ing] women to experience greater overall equity as workers,” (p. 3). Understanding why these policies fall short is a critical project.

THE BALANCE GAP, focused as it is on women’s decision-making regarding leave-taking, is therefore also a book that is useful beyond its contribution to the academic literature. When we encounter Hampson’s scholarship, we understand the thought processes of individuals that contribute to causing potentially transformational policy to fail or under-deliver. And, when we understand her analysis vis-à-vis the “ideal worker,” we see that such policies might be doomed to fail absent significant cultural shifts – the kinds of which she appropriately advocates for in her concluding chapter. In the Conclusion, Hampson – through the wise counsel of many of her interview subjects, as well as a survey of the available literature on work/life balance – makes sensible policy recommendations. Two which stood out are gender-equitable leave policies tied not only to the physical act of child birth but to adoption and caretaking as well, and encouraging men to take parental leave [*44] as well. Hampson is also clear on the need to “change workplace discourse” around issues of leave taking and parenting – and in so doing, to change institutional contexts and cultures, as well. These recommendations resonate with authors who write for wider audiences on issues relating to women in the workplace (e.g. see Slaughter 2015).

Hampson’s analysis of what is going on with women’s decisions related to leave taking (and not) is nuanced and well-theorized. By the end of the book, readers understand that the decision not to take leave comes, in part, from ingrained norms and overriding contextual factors that make it rational for women in these workplaces to diminish their own access to rights available to them via employer policies. The key that Hampson provides is in her articulation of the way that legal consciousness “around work/life balance policies is formed through formal and informal institutional norms and structures, the communication of ideology (in particular the ideological construct of the ‘ideal worker’), and individual agency” (p. 5). Hampson’s discussion early in the book of the legal consciousness literature and its relationship to legal mobilization has significantly impacted my own work and the way I think about the connections between these literatures – and it is this theoretical contribution that I find most exciting. Her treatment of disparate strands of scholarship is fair and even-handed and her review of the literature analytically engages the fields of legal consciousness and legal mobilization in a way that makes a significant contribution to furthering work in both areas. Hampson uses Haltom and McCann’s (2004) framework for understanding relationships of ideology-institution-individual, as an addition to the way that Ewick and Silbey’s (1998) initial conceptualization of legal consciousness has been used, to argue that the relationships between ideology-institution-individual are constitutive of relationships with legal consciousness and legal mobilization action.

This is not a small point – rather, it is an intervention in reframing the course of a long-standing and ongoing conversation in the fields of law and society and public law. In THE BALANCE GAP, Hampson is interested in understanding “the interactions that individuals have with the law in their everyday lives… how individuals think about the law, and in tracking the mutually constituted relationship between legal action and legal consciousness. Fundamentally,” she writes, “scholars who study the connection between legal consciousness and legal mobilization are interested in questions of how people use legal concepts, legal terminology, and other kinds of connections with the law in their everyday lives and when and how that matters for rights claiming” [*45] (p. 5). THE BALANCE GAP shows us that understanding the legal consciousness of typical employees can be a way of understanding “the gap” between having a policy on the books, and having a policy that is accessed. Hampson’s work helps us understand why there is a lack of rights claiming and rights accessing by women who seek to be ideal workers (ideal academics, ideal soldiers). It also contributes to the growing body of scholarship that illustrates just how frequently law fails women when it attempts transformational policy to instantiate gender justice (Corrigan 2013, Bumiller 2008, Silverstein 2007, Nielsen 2004).

I do think that Hampson’s book is poised to make an even bigger contribution here than it does. She asks, “How do individuals use the language of the law to interpret their situations?” (p. 6); her answer, like much of the legal mobilization literature’s answer, is that this use of language will become an assertion of rights. This is my one main quibble with the text – admittedly “quibble” feels too small a word, and “argument” feels too big – Hampson’s research subjects do not need to mobilize a language of rights, in order to mobilize or access law. THE BALANCE GAP highlights what happens when rights are not the focus of individualized decision making about policy and law. I’d like to see the book articulate that moment of disjuncture, that further gap, where the extant literature’s understanding of legal consciousness and mobilization requires rights claiming for legibility even more strongly.

This is a rather small point, though, given the considerable work the book already does, and it is certainly less a critique than a congratulations to Hampson on having opened a new area of inquiry into the relationship between rights, consciousness, and mobilization. THE BALANCE GAP shows us that understanding the ongoing process of the development of legal consciousness in typical employees can be a way of understanding ‘the gap’ between having a policy on the books, and having a policy that is accessed. Hampson’s work helps us understand why there is a lack of rights claiming and rights accessing by women who seek to be ideal workers (ideal academics, ideal soldiers). In doing so, it contributes to theory-building, and policy-making, in a rigorous and exemplary way.



Corrigan, Rose. 2013. UP AGAINST A WALL: RAPE REFORM AND THE FAILURE OF SUCCESS. New York City: New York University Press.

Ewick, Patricia and Susan Silbey. 1998. THE COMMON PLACE OF LAW: STORIES FROM EVERYDAY LIFE. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Haltom, William and Michael McCann. 2004. DISTORTING THE LAW: POLITICS, MEDIA, AND THE LITIGATION CRISIS. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Nielsen, Laura Beth. 2004. LICENSE TO HARASS: LAW, HIERARCHY, AND OFFENSIVE PUBLIC SPEECH. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Silverstein, Helena. 2007. GIRLS ON THE STAND: HOW COURTS FAIL PREGNANT MINORS. New York City: New York University Press.

Slaughter, Anne-Marie. 2015. UNFINISHED BUSINESS: WOMEN, MEN, WORK, FAMILY. New York City: Penguin Random House.

© Copyright 2020 by the author, Renee A. Cramer.