Afternoon Inquisition

AI: Hitting a Maternal Wall

Today, as I was driving to my mom’s house to leave my daughter with her while I work, I listened to a story on NPR which left me angry and wondering what kind of professional future Spencer can hope for as a woman.

Forgive my lack of detail, as I’m writing this on my iPhone before I have to leave. Basically, the woman being interviewed had been hired on Wallstreet by Citigroup. Being a woman who planned to eventually have a family, she was won over by their awards in equality and diversity. However, she found it to be a different story once she began her job. It was a “boys’ club”, in which snarky comments were made toward her based on her gender on a regular basis and, upon returning from maternity leave after having her first child, she was demoted.

As it happens, the woman before her had also been demoted after her first maternity leave and was laid off after her second. And there is a long chain of recorded issues with other women in the group, including a woman who was laid off after receiving larger bonuses than her male counterparts.

Are working mothers worth less in the professional world? From the hypothetical viewpoint of an employer, should women have to choose between motherhood and her profession? Should the same go for men, considering the higher rate of paternal involvement in modern society?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 3pm ET.

Chelsea

Chelsea is the proud mama of an amazing toddler-aged girl. She works in the retail industry while vehemently disliking mankind and, every once in a while, her bottled-up emotions explode into WordPress as a lengthy, ranty, almost violent blog. These will be your favorite Chelsea moments. Follow Chelsea on Twitter: chelseaepp.

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34 Comments

  1. I do think this does happen. It’s frustrating and kind of unreasonable, especially with the fact that men don’t experience the same if they have children.

    However, it goes both ways – if you go into less power-focused profession (I’m an admin aide) you are *expected* to have “a family” – which means reproducing in some fashion (and occasionally doesn’t even include adoption – ya gotta pop that baby out!) and it can result in less respect in the workplace, negative assumptions AND a lower paycheck.

    I think either way, for or against family, it’s a form of discrimination. I don’t think that anyone should be punished for their reproductive choices – and when they are trying to work and provide for their family (whatever that family may be), they are responsible human beings looking to contribute to society. Employers should respect that.

  2. I have always thought that there is a nice mental experiment that sheds a huge amount of light over your questions (and many others!): Just imagine what kind of world we will have if men where the ones who had the babies. Do you think that in that world there would be a skepboy in his skepboy blog asking the questions you are asking here?

  3. Are working mothers worth less in the professional world?

    In my experience, yes. A parent’s priorities should include his or her family. I think it is admirable if a parent makes their family their top priority. This will make them less valuable to their employer, however.

    To bring this down to specifics we had an emergency a few years back and needed someone to go to Japan for 10 days over Christmas. The company asked for volunteers and two, young, single men volunteered. In the years after this I have noticed these two men have advanced faster than their peers. To be clear it is their actions and their results that make them valuable to the company. I think it is reasonable to assume, however, that their single status and priorities that helps give them the flexibility to come through time and time again.

    Should the same go for men, considering the higher rate of paternal involvement in modern society?

    I have noticed more men than women put their jobs ahead of their family responsibilities. I think this makes these individuals sucky dads, but better employees.


    Now I would never commit nor support discrimination in hiring. I have always based my hiring decisions based only on the candidate’s qualifications. (I only get input into hiring. I don’t have any supervisory responsibilities.) Generally I only find out after people get hired what their marriage and family status is and this is exactly how it should be. Your questions, however, related to employee’s value to the company. I interpret this as who gets the best assignments and promotions. As I look around the people I see rising the fastest, like the two from my example, are mostly single or childless. There are exceptions to this however. One stunning one is a senior VP in engineering who is my favorite executive ever who seems to be able to make the balance work. Her husband, however, is stay-at-home and handles most of the daily family stuff.

  4. I’m not sure how much of this is sexism, and how much of it is the general devaluation of labor in modern American society, although I’m sure sexism is a significant part of the issue. I’d also guess that paternal involvement is much less in the higher echelons of the business world.

    There’s an issue bigger than gender discrimination that needs to be addressed here. In our culture, whenever someone seems to get a little more than everyone else… like maternity leave… the general instinct is to try to tear that person down. The more healthy instinct would be to say “Hey! Why not me too?!?” and push for everyone to be raised up. Instead of men being jealous of mothers for the time off they get because they have children, those men who are fathers should be asking for the same right to take time off for the sake of their families.

  5. I think part of the problem is that women are still responsible for more domestic and childcare work than men are. My boss works 80 hours a week and that’s fine for him because his wife does absolutely everything. I’m single and childless but I still can’t work overtime every night because I don’t have someone at home to cook, clean, buy groceries, etc so I have to do all of those things myself. The reason that some men can be such “good” employees is only because they have someone else in their life who picks up the slack on the daily chores.

    Even when both parents work, more of the domestic responsibility falls on the women. I’m sure everyone here has heard of the double burden. It has eased somewhat, but the division of labor in the home is by no means equal. When a kid gets sick at school, the default practice is to call the mother. If you find a wandering child that looks lost, the typical question is “Where is your mommy?” When a kid that is not your own asks for some candy, we generally tell them to ask their mom if it’s ok.

    And then there’s a cycle where someone has to cut back on their career to care for the home and family, and it’s more often the woman because women still get paid less on average then men do. And since the woman took some time off, she’ll continue to make less money so it will still make sense for her to invest less in her career.

    I also think fathers should have parental leave and be encouraged to use it. Mothers should probably get a little more just to recover from the physical ordeal of childbirth, but men should be even more involved with caring for their own children. We’re headed in the right direction with this but we’re not there yet.

    Our work system is set up so that all parents have to choose, and it’s more often that women choose their children and men choose their career. IMO, neither of choices is very good and no one should have to choose between them. It especially sucks for single parents who can’t even choose one over the other.

    In my utopia, corporations would genuinely be supportive of “work-life balance” and not just give it lip service. Men would contribute equally to domestic work and no one would be surprised by this. Since men would have as much responsibility outside of work as women, they wouldn’t be able to work more hours than women.

  6. I was thinking about this earlier. It seems in our society our employers expect us to make them our first priority; while our families also expected to be our first priority. If you indicate to your employer that they are second, it’s a huge problem and you can expect to be demoted, passed over, or fired for it.

  7. “Are working mothers worth less in the professional world? From the hypothetical viewpoint of an employer, should women have to choose between motherhood and her profession? Should the same go for men, considering the higher rate of paternal involvement in modern society?”

    We are less valued as women, but I believe we are presented with a false choice to correct it.

    Our social and economic system was set up by men, for men. Trying to be equal in society is like women trying to use Sharia law to pursue feminism.

    It is the entire system which has to change – from working hours to maternity/paternity leave/healthcare, to the expected familial obligations of fathers and mothers. The way the work/life system is set up now, we have no choice BUT to choose between family and motherhood, or risk doing neither very well. Men do not have this dilemma, and it is because they’re not expected to have 2 full time jobs: Their profession and fatherhood, whereas women are.

    Anyone else see the latest “5-hour energy” drink commercial? Where a woman comes home with 2 kids, holding groceries, going on and on about how her “2nd job” starts at 5 pm, so to keep up, her husband recommended the 5-hour energy drink.

    She walks over to the couch to “thank him” for doing so and therefore, helping her have the energy in the evenings, and what is he doing? Shoes off, feet on the table, reading a paper, smiling a “you’re welcome”, sh*t eating smile.

    When things like that are absolutely erased from our expectations is perhaps when we can start talking about equality.

  8. I don’t think it would matter if it were a woman or a man who took parental leave. They will be at a disadvantage in the business world to those who do not take the time off. I like what Sweden does but those who have only one child or no children will still have an ability to surpass their colleagues while they are away from work. And this seems fair, why should someone who takes ten months off get ten months worth of work credit if they’re not at work? And if we adopt a Swedish model in this country I’m sure many small businesses will be more inclined to hire a man over a woman with equal quilifications to avoid the risk of time away from work and having to pay a salary to someone who’s not producing for the buisness.

  9. @catgirl: In my utopia, corporations would genuinely be supportive of “work-life balance” and not just give it lip service. Men would contribute equally to domestic work and no one would be surprised by this. Since men would have as much responsibility outside of work as women, they wouldn’t be able to work more hours than women.

    Oh, you had me until this last bit. My wife and I have always had a 50/50 split of household and earning responsibilities. (We don’t have kids so this has lightened the load considerably.) I have always worked more hours than her (sometimes by as much as double) while keeping up my share around the house. About ten years ago we decided we didn’t need two incomes any more and it made more sense for her to quit. I have always liked working for the man and she never has. She is now the “writer in residence” and I am “the money wench” and it works for us. This has nothing to do with gender or the amount of time we have left over it is just a result of where our interests lie.

  10. I heard the same story, and while I think this sort of thing happens to some degree many places, another clear message from the story is that Wall Street is a ridiculously backwards culture overall. That has to be the ultimate breeding ground for this sort of behavior.

    One interviewee even made the astute observation that it was probably the same “mine is longer than yours” culture that has contributed greatly to all the Wall Street bubbles we’ve had to weather over the decades.

  11. Since I’m about to have my first child and also started my first “real” post grad-school job last year, I’ve been thinking about this a lot.

    Personally I don’t think I’d feel fulfilled by either family or career alone.

    Will I be as good a mother as a full time mother? I can tell you right now that I find the idea of pumping breast-milk daunting, and if I don’t do it, I know I’m already a failure in the eyes of some mothers. Daycare? I might as well just abandon her to be raised by wolves.

    Meanwhile, when I have to leave work to pick her up from that daycare on time, and my colleagues stay late to finish, how can they not see me as being less valuable? Already I’m costing them money in higher medical insurance usage for the same premium, and paid “personal time” for doctors’ visits that raises our overhead costs.

    So I’m aware I’m making compromises. And I’m okay with the fact that I probably won’t rise through the ranks as high as I might’ve if I didn’t have kids. I’m even okay with making less money at the same job than a childless person — or, I suppose, a person with a stay-at-home partner, who after all has the burden of having a whole household to support to go with their greater freedom to work late. Raises are performance based, and I can’t compete with someone who doesn’t have so many other responsibilities.

    I’m also okay with the fact that I might not be the one to hear my child’s first words or see her first steps, too. I hope I am. But if she reaches those milestones in daycare, well, it means the daycare is doing a good job, helping her develop. I’ll still get to see her walk and talk and grow. And I was a daycare baby, so I don’t think it means doom.

    I can understand not wanting to make these sacrifices, in either direction. I can understand wanting to do one thing and do it well.

    But I am very glad I live in a society where I can choose to make these compromises and try to do both, because I personally can’t bring myself to sacrifice either my work or my family life completely. I only get one life, and I can’t imagine missing out on either motherhood or the chance to do satisfying work. Maybe if I believed in re-incarnation, I’d try to do them in series instead of in parallel…

    But why should society let me do both if I can’t do either as well that way? Why should everyone go out of their way to accommodate my life goals?

    I can think of three reasons. 1) I don’t think it’s really all that much more efficient to have one half a couple devoted to work and one half devoted to family. By having both do both, you make up for the lost hours of the worker by adding some productive (for society) hours from the otherwise non-working partner, and the family likewise benefits from having two parents rather than one parent and one “breadwinner”. Sure there’s some “task switching” inefficiency, but I suspect there’s also reduced burn-out in both roles. 2) Single parents really have no choice, and if you make life too difficult for single parents, you have, for starters, a lot of women staying in abusive relationships, a lot of destitute widows, and a lot of men re-marrying for childcare and not for love. 3) Because even though there are some people who will choose to specialize, I think there are enough people like me who want the whole enchilada that the overall happiness/fulfillment level of society will be greater if we allow everyone the flexibility to do both if they choose to, or to move back and forth. And if we’re not structuring our society to maximize overall happiness/fulfillment, then what are we trying to do? Maximize the GDP? What’s the point of that if we’re all miserable? I mean, we could do that by eliminating weekends too, but who would argue for that, these days?

  12. Two things:

    First, it’s reasonable for someone who takes a period of time off to come back to exactly the same position and place in the advancement track s/he was when s/he left. What’s egregious about the behavior detailed in the article is that the companies penalized women who dared to take the time off to which they were legally entitled.

    Second – and I think the larger problem – is the work culture in the U.S. which is basically slavery to the job. People in the EU work in order to have the funds to lead an enjoyable life. People in the U.S. work to survive. And if you’re working to survive, employers can expect to be the first priority of their employees, work them for lots of unpaid overtime (if they’re salaried), and not care at all how that environment affects the employees’ ability to lead happy, fulfilled, productive lives outside of work.

    If a full-time position meant 35-40 hours of work per week with plentiful, flexible time off and guaranteed leave for new parents of either gender (as it does *by law* in many civilized countries) then a lot more women (and men) would have the flexibility to balance work and family life. Until that happens, people will do what they need to survive, which in many cases puts women in a poor position.

  13. mks.mary:Will I be as good a mother as a full time mother?

    As a full time mother, I can tell you the answer is yes. I don’t think I’m any better at being a mom than women who work, and sometimes, I feel like maybe I’m a little worse. You have to do whatever is going to make you happy, and if that’s having a job and a family, then great.

    Oh, and I found sitting with the breast pump pretty unpleasant myself, so I fed my baby formula when it was convenient. But I also have a friend who went back to work full time and managed to pump enough to exclusively breastfeed her baby. These are anecdotes, sure, but you do what works for you. If you want to pump, go for it. If not, formula is a fine option. Don’t let other people judge you for doing what’s best for your family.

  14. Thanks, lexicakes. I guess you can tell I really am feeling guilty and anxious about the kind of mother I’m going to be — and the more I try to read about how to be a good mother, the worse the flame-wars look, elsewhere on the internet and even in the books.

    Thanks for making me feel better. I think that was the nicest, most supportive comment I’ve ever seen on this subject.

  15. @Aflea: “Just imagine what kind of world we will have if men where the ones who had the babies.”

    This is puzzling. “If men were the ones who had babies”?

    Yeah, we know what that would be like – it’s called being a woman. I don’t get how this would be a mental experiment.

    I’m curious, though.

  16. “Are working mothers worth less in the professional world?
    Not really. Are they treated that way? Yes, too often.

    I think that all people should value their family over their company. If enough people did that over time, the attitude might change. “No one has ever lamented on their deathbed that they should have spent more time at the office.”

    Of course, many other countries are much more civilized than the US and actually value families rather than mouth platitudes about them. But I digress.

  17. @jrpowell:

    It may suck less, but you work more. Don’t be fooled by that. I have my own business after being laid-off umpteen times, and being an entrepreneur is more satisfying, but more busy. There’s no accounting department, there’s no in-house lawyers to set up your contracts, there’s no marketing department to bring in new clients. At the start, you’re doing it all yourself. Satisfying, but occasionally head-banging frustrating.

    **********************************

    Okay, rant by me. Settle in.

    There’s inequality in the workforce to be sure. (Chelsea’s story gives me another reason to contain my urge to go to Wall Street with a machete.) But I’ve known plenty of women who – after having their children – want to cut back their hours to part-time but keep all the perqs of full-time (like benefits and salary). I even heard one peer say that I could pick up her slack because I was so efficient it wouldn’t matter to me (since she was dumb enough to have this discussion where I could overhear, I immediately yelled out if I was picking up her slack, I was picking up some of her salary, too, right?).

    Work-life balance has to be addressed, but sometimes, you have to look at the career you chose and see how people move up the ladder. If it’s through dedication to the work and you still want to grow your career, then you have to make the unfair choice of putting work or family first.

    Because it’s unfair to say that ‘Mom always has to do it.’ I have two friends who are the primary breadwinners in their families, and it was made very clear to child care and schools: DADDY is called first in emergencies, and that’s never been a problem for them.

    Now, if you choose work and they still don’t promote you? Yeah, kick their asses into next month (or the 21st century, your choice). But look honestly at your pre-family vs. post-family contributions at work. If you know you have cut back your hours and your motivations have changed, well, your employer is not in business to subsidize your life. S/he has other employees to worry about (not to mention themselves). And that goes for new mothers and new fathers equally.

    Work-life balance means that something has to be given up for something new you take on. It does not mean that your professional growth keeps on going at a steady pace when you don’t tend to it as well as you used to (assuming that’s the case).

    I would like to see sexism removed from the workplace for certain – I found out (in confidence) that I lost my last job in a round of budget cuts because when it came down to a choice between me and a male colleague, I was chosen to be let go because she found out I was getting married in a few months. So I would be “taken care of,” while he had a family to take care of. That my male colleague cost more (by virtue of age – he had 20 years on me and I only made marginally less), was less competent and had a wife who was a high-powered muck-a-muck somewhere and he admitted that he worked to keep from being bored? Apparently, that didn’t factor into it. That my male bosses fought it tooth and nail and the woman who made that decision wouldn’t budge only adds to my frustration. You would think a female executive would base her decisions on business merit, not gender – our sex is hardly blameless in the issues that have led to professional inequality.

    It’s life, and they are sucky choices, perhaps, but they are choices. We should try to change things so that choices like this are less crushing – men or women, no matter the life change (I was my Mom’s home-health aide for the last two weeks of her life – neither my brother or sister could have done that if they wanted to because of their jobs, but entrepreneurial me could do it without losing a step). But we should also stop buying into the BS that a woman can “have it all – career and family!”. You have the life you have, and you handle what you can handle. If that’s a robust family life and robust career? Bully for you. But many people can’t have that or aren’t on speed, and need to make the choice. And be honest about the cause and effect of those choices.

  18. @BrieCS: Yes! It does happen both ways, and neither are fair.

    @Aflea: I have to go with @whitebird here, in that I don’t understand the exercise. Could you shed some light?

    @catgirl: I agree. I work about 25 hours per week and am responsible for most childcare, housework, cooking, grocery shopping, etc. That’s not to say that Jason doesn’t help me – he does. But our balance is in the fact that he works full time. That said, if both of us were working full time we would still have to split the difference and it would still most likely remain heavy on my side because I’m the mom.

    @Leeta: I have not seen that ad, but I just threw up in my mouth a little. :(

    @James Fox: I agree that it wouldn’t be fair for coworkers who stay on the job to not be able to surpass. My problem is with the fact that she was demoted to a lower ranking, lower paying position upon returning, despite her quality of work not diminishing (allegedly). It’s only right to expect to have to catch up after a few months off, but to be outright punished for daring to do so is wrong.

    @TheCzech: Yes! That line summed up the whole story and Wall Street lifestyle very well. Thank you – I was going entirely off of what I could remember from the car ride. :)

    @mks.mary: No matter what you do for your baby and your family, you will do it wonderfully. I had my first in January and was terrified that I would do everything wrong. But she’ll be 9 months old Friday and is healthy and happy and loved, so I must be doing something right. Also, don’t listen to women on mom forums. They are all insane and there will always be someone to tell you you’re wrong in those groups. For what it’s worth, I tried staying exclusive to breastfeeding by pumping every night when she went to bed. I made it about 3 weeks and I stressed myself out to the point that my supply went down. At that point I started supplementing with formula while at work and everything is perfectly fine again, plus I’m less worried about not having enough for her. Do what’s right for you.

  19. @Chasmosaur: “your employer is not in business to subsidize your life. ”

    This pretty much sums up the unhealthy attitudes towards work in america. Here we treat our jobs as a privilege. It is expected that the relationship goes one way and it is only up to us to impress our employers and give 110% at all times. Rewards should only go to those that dedicate themselves to their job completely, at a detriment to other parts of their lives.

    This is sick. It reduces us to ineffectual, interchangable cogs in a machine. It turns us into the abused spouses of the working world, whimpering yet going back over and over, rationalizing away the inhumane treatment as necessary or justified and blaming ourselves.

    The thing is, a CEO without a workforce can do nothing. It is reasonable for workers to demand that jobs treat them as human beings and have respect for their lives outside of work. How this is defined is debatable, but just accepting the paradigm of “well, if I dare to not devote myself entirely to my job I guess I don’t deserve to be treated fairly” is counterproductive. Tying a workers worth to their absolute value as an employee (and not as a human being) is pure capitalism. It doesn’t work on a small or large scale.

  20. It is reasonable for workers to demand that jobs treat them as human beings and have respect for their lives outside of work. How this is defined is debatable, but just accepting the paradigm of “well, if I dare to not devote myself entirely to my job I guess I don’t deserve to be treated fairly” is counterproductive. Tying a workers worth to their absolute value as an employee (and not as a human being) is pure capitalism. It doesn’t work on a small or large scale.

    I agree with your analysis and conclusion. Do you have a proposal for a fix? Presumably giving everyone equal rewards and responsibilities regardless of productivity is too far the other direction. The problem is I am stumped for a middle ground. Everything I can think of either penalizes the overachievers or removes the possibility of failure. Neither seems good for business.

  21. @mikerattlesnake:

    I actually agree with you – like I said, work/life balance has to be addressed. I meant that in a societal sense, not a personal sense.

    But I’m wondering if you’ve ever had to be one of the sole childless people in an office filled with parents. Because I have. And it sucks. Because I’m not a workaholic, but I was treated as if I was one who wouldn’t mind finishing other people’s work. At least once a week.

    Some things are necessary, yes – that’s part of being a parent and you don’t want to neglect your kids or miss the really cool moments. But when immovable deadlines loom – things like deliverables or RFP’s that need to go out the door, so you remain a successful, profitable business that allows you to employ these people – all the stuff that isn’t done falls on the shoulders of the childless people in the office. It’s assumed that because we don’t have kids, that we don’t mind. Except, you know, we do. We have families and we have lives of our own. We don’t actually work for our colleagues.

    Shoving work off onto other employees because you are a parent who wants balance isn’t a privilege you automatically gain by reproducing. You complain about CEO’s devaluing employees? Well, how about employees devaluing their peers? You think it’s okay to leave a co-worker in the lurch all the time?

    I’m not anti-kid, and I’m sympathetic to the plight of working parents. (I don’t have kids because I can’t, not because I don’t want them.) But I draw the line when those working parents whine about someone else taking time off, because it makes their lives difficult. Which happened to me when I had to help my family out when my 38 y/0 brother had a fucking BRAIN TUMOR. The person had no sympathy for my emergency, despite all the times I’d covered for them when their child had yet another ear-infection. It was all about how their life was disrupted – talk about feeling like a cog.

    Having family obligations is so much more than just having kids. You have siblings and parents and grandparents and cousins or just friends that are close enough you consider family. (I have a few that if something happened to them, I would drop everything and fly out to help out their spouses or families.) Until the working parents of the world concede this basic fact, then I can’t be unreservedly sympathetic. Work-life balance is not just about making sure that every new parent gets to keep their perqs. It’s about making sure that EVERYONE gets treated with human decency. (Best CEO I ever had? September 12, he walked around our Georgetown office and asked every single person if they were okay, and if everyone they knew was okay. He was genuinely interested and could be seen crying with people who had experienced loss. And he gave time off to anyone who had the need of it without impacting their fixed time off. Best CEO I ever had – not all of them are profit-minded assholes.)

    Bottom line: your desire to have a work-life balance doesn’t mean you get to throw someone else’s off. Because that’s what happened to me, time and time again. And I was supposed to suck it up, because it was about someone else’s home life, mine be damned.

    It’s not about being a workaholic, it’s about respecting your professional peers and colleagues. Because I’ve met plenty of parents – male and female – who manage to keep their family life out of work a good chunk of the time. And I’ve met others who wield their family life like a cudgel. The latter is much more offensive to me than bosses who actually expect you to do the work you’re paid for.

  22. There’s a lot of discrimination going on out there. It’s sad. And it’s a waste. Employers would do well to get the best from all of their employees. And to avoid having a destructive culture that burns out employees.

    It is a fact that on average women take fewer days off than men. And that *INCLUDES* maternity leave. (I guess us guys don’t take such good care of ourselves.)

    I strive to create an environment of equal opportunity. The world isn’t perfect, but I strive to improve my portion of it.

  23. I must be the only working mother I know that doesn’t expect her co-workers to pick up the slack of my work because I’m too busy parenting to be a full time employee.

    Oh, except for all the other working mothers I work with.

    You know what? The last 3 people who blew off work and left me holding the bag were, in order:

    1. single, childless woman who got a new (rich) boyfriend and decided she was done with working,
    2. involved, childless woman who got mad she didn’t get a promotion, so she stopped coming to work,
    3. married, childless man who had ‘other priorities’ that trumped his obligation to our employer, his co-workers and clients.

  24. @SamBarge:

    First – okay, I was ranty, sorry. Lost my Mom a few weeks ago and my emotions are still kinda volatile. Explanation, not excuse. Guess I’m moving into the “angry” phase. Which would be a vast improvement over the “crying in the middle of the grocery store” phase.

    Second: Well then, Sam, I want to work where you work. Because the places where I worked, parenting came ahead of work. All the time.

    Perhaps your workplaces have been more balanced than mine. I’ve worked in places where I was the odd-man out for being a single woman (usually, I was also the only one on a career track, instead of the admin pool – though when I was in the admin pool I was the odd-man for not being married, too), or I was a rarity for being a married, childless woman who appeared to not have a desire to have kids. (My husband and I don’t really discuss our conception issues outside of a close circle – we are living with the cards that were dealt to us and don’t feel like discussing the issue over and over again.)

    So where I have worked, Mom (and Dad) priorities have always trumped the handful of childless people. Maybe I’ve been horribly unlucky – I concede that. But when the culture of the office is “I’m coming in after I’ve seen the kids onto the bus and leaving early so I can pick them up off the bus”, but things have to be finished by COB? Yeah – guess who had to do a lot of the work.

    And I’ll admit – I had to call a few young-un’s on the carpet for blowing off deadlines so they could hit happy hour – it’s not exclusive to the parents of the world.

    I guess I just get tired of seeing “are mothers worth less?”, when it’s about any work-culture where one group is valued more than the other. Are sisters or daughters worth less than sons or brothers? Are Mac people worth more than Windows people? Are Christians worth more than Muslims or atheists? (That last one was a job that requires a stiff Bloody Mary to discuss).

    Now – Chelsea’s original story? Yes, that shit makes me see red. People have families, that doesn’t mean they are less dedicated to their work. Note I mentioned many friends where the woman is the primary breadwinner – my good friends and I don’t lack ambition, and they know I’m good for a babysit in emergencies since I actually happen to enjoy kids a lot. Women should not be penalized by the simple act of reproducing, or even marrying. We aren’t chattel anymore. And men should certainly be given time off to enjoy and bond with their child as well.

    But it seems to me that the whole work-life balance issue has turned into something that is mostly about working mothers. And that bothers me. Because when my brother had his brain tumor, I was given an arched eyebrow by my boss (mother to two children), and asked if it was really necessary for me to be with my family. I was shocked at this response, as she gave every parent in the office (including herself) unlimited time for their child-related issues (emergency or non) without hesitation. So yeah, I’m a bit biased – I’ve had really bad experiences. (In that case, I arched an eyebrow right back and told her I’d be happy to bring in an HR rep that very second to discuss her statement and those family-friendly policies she claimed to support – she backed down.)

    Until work-life balance stops becoming short-hand for “Give working parents – especially moms – a break”, I’m going to be vocal about it. It’s not that I don’t think there should be better work-life balance in the culture of US workplace, better access to affordable child care, and a general shift in tone. Employees aren’t chattel, and CEO’s have nothing to CEO over without employees, so they need to see their “human resources” as “personnel” again, emphasis on the “person”.

    But the reality is, the tone hasn’t changed, and we need to find that middle ground that davew is talking about. I don’t know where it is, but it does start with treating people equally. Making a work-life balance about parenting minor children is a disservice to childless people, or even those with grown kids who are still in the workplace who don’t have that level of involvement any more.

  25. I grew up in the US and moved to Australia several years ago. I was amazed (and impressed) to learn that Australia has federally mandated maternity entitlements that companies must adhere to at a minimum (see http://bit.ly/cvlriY). Basically, if you’ve been working there at least a year, and you give them enough notice and make a legal affirmation that you’ll be the primary caregiver, you can take a year of unpaid leave — and then come back to work, and you must be given your same job back or else another one of similar status and pay.

    The company I work for is particularly good about it — I believe employees even get 6 weeks’ pay at the start — and ‘secondments’ (someone taking over your role for the time you’re gone) for employees are regular and commonplace here. (My company generally likes to fill them from within where possible, but I’ve seen job listings for maternity-leave contracts for other companies.)

    I’ve heard people in the US say that women couldn’t take off that much time, because it would be too difficult to lose them for that long, that it would disrupt the workplace, lead to losses for the company, etc. But in Australia it’s not only considered something important enough for the country’s interest that it had to be federally regulated, but (my company, at least) sees it as a good way to encourage career development for its employees. On secondment you can try out another position for a year, learn a new job and see if you like it — but still have the safety of *your* old position (which has often been seconded, too) when you’re done.

    My department also regularly uses freelancers to help meet demand during high-capacity periods, and many former full-time employees have simply decided to have children and turn freelance for us. It’s a win-win situation: they have a flexible living, and the company has people already with the necessary training and experience.

    (Granted, freelancers don’t have the chance to rise up the managerial ladder if they’re not working in-house, but that’s clearly not a function of sex or motherhood — male and child-free freelancers have the same issue.)

    Of course an employee without children obviously might have more free time to devote to work, ‘get noticed’, work up the ladder, etc than someone with children might, but that applies to the fathers who leave work at 5 to go home to their families, too. I believe people make choices about what to focus on in their life — there’s only so much time in the day, and you can’t do everything at once. The decision to have children and stay at home to raise them necessarily precludes working 80-hour weeks and regular business travel. The decision to not have children and focus on a career precludes other things, but many have also made that choice (myself included).

    This isn’t to say that either Australia or my company is perfect, of course — both have their flaws. But I think when it comes to maternity leave the US could be a lot better off if it copied some of the Australian practices.

  26. @Chasmosaur:
    “but it does start with treating people equally.”

    I don’t know. Seems like, treating people equally is not fair, and treating people fairly is not equal.

    Plus, evaluating the “worth” of a person to an organization (any organization) is non-trivial, and absurdly political even when you’ve got the best of intentions.

    This may be a tangent, but lately I’ve been looking at things like LA teacher rankings and attempts to rank academics.

    “Hard” measurements for “soft” things simply don’t work; the number being tracked doesn’t actually have anything to do with the work that needs to be done.

  27. @Josh K:

    Josh – when I say equally, I don’t mean looking at work productivity.

    I mean that if there’s a family medical emergency – whether it’s your child’s raging fever, your brother’s potentially fatal brain tumor or the fall that broke your elderly parent’s hip – a person should not have to be on the receiving end of the judgment call I received. (i.e. – that because it was a brother and not a child who was seriously ill, the need for some time off was perceived as a want, not a need. )

    Work-life balance should not become working-parent-balance. It should be work-life balance for everyone, since family situations are different for everyone. Someone caring for an elderly parent with dementia has just as many distractions, worries, responsibilities and doctor appointments as a parent to a young child. Neither should be punished professionally for taking care of their family, but the caretaker-parent shouldn’t get more rights to a balanced life than the caretaker-child. That’s what I mean when I say equally.

    There will always be people looking to game the system, but the way the system is set up now just isn’t working.

  28. @Chasmosaur:

    “Josh – when I say equally, I don’t mean looking at work productivity.”

    Thank you for the clarification. :)

    “There will always be people looking to game the system, but the way the system is set up now just isn’t working.”

    I’m by no means an authority on the subject, but I don’t think there’s really any kind of system; there’s a definition of parents-with-young-children as a culturally (and sometimes legally) protected group, that’s all.

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