Issue 128 - January/February 2005
Benefit packages offered throughout the US economy include a set of policies and practices termed “family-friendly.” Their basic intent is to help working parents balance personal or family life with work responsibilities. These policies can include maternity and pater-nity leave benefits; allowances for personal and sick time; work-schedule flexibility, including policies related to part-time work; telecommuting policies; breastfeeding arrangements; employer-supported childcare; and counseling referral programs. Yet some question whether the current standard is enough to help working parents—mothers in particular—handle the substantial second or third job of family caregiving.
Control over their work schedules is highly prized by working parents, and over the last decade there has been an increase in access to flextime options. So says the National Study of the Changing Workforce, a study conducted every five years by the Families and Work Institute, which charted the rise in availability of employees’ flextime from 29 percent in 1992 to 43 percent in 2002. The 2002 report also noted that offering flexible work arrangements makes a great deal of sense for the companies that do so, encouraging employees to be more committed, loyal, and focused. Employees report more job satisfaction and general life satisfaction when flexible work policies are in place.
But the report, which is considerably more complex than these few statistics, also found plenty of problems. For example, the report found part-time work noteworthy as being not so family-friendly, because it usually means nonproportional pay and no benefits.
Examples of policies that have helped some parents—by their own account—fulfill their work obligations while supporting the well-being of their families include:
- Flextime At one university fund-raising department, employees can negotiate different work schedules. One mother works a compressed workweek of four ten-hour days, while another arrives at work several hours earlier two days a week, to be available for her sons when they come home from school.
- On-site childcare/lactation room A writer at a technology company was full of high praise for the on-site childcare center at her worksite and the company policy that allowed her to check in on her infant son at will. They made it possible for her to be there in person to nurse him throughout the day. A father who manages a development team at another technology company is able to integrate some family time into his workday because of the proximity of his daughter’s employer-supported daycare center.
- Shifts in work hours/leaves of absence One woman has found her managers ready to accommodate her needs throughout the ten years she’s been at the company as a working mother. She has taken several leaves of absence, first during her children’s early years, and later to help them succeed in school. She has negotiated several shifts in her schedule as well.
The availability of and access to family-friendly benefits such as these vary. Deciding factors can include the size and type of business you work for, whether you are salaried or work by the hour, your workplace culture, your immediate supervisor’s management style, and state and federal regulations.
Companies want to be perceived as family-friendly because it can mean attracting and retaining good workers. While much ink is spent praising companies’ family-friendly policies, whatever you might read—including your employee manual—won’t necessarily tell the whole story. “There is a huge gap in how companies describe themselves and what they deliver,” Joan C. Williams, director of the Program on Gender, Work, and Family at American University, Washington College of Law, said in a telephone interview. “A big flaw with family-friendly policies is that employees often experience stigma when they use them. People will say, ‘Don’t dare use that, or you will never be promoted again and you will be the first fired.’ Even companies that describe themselves as “family-friendly” can also have well-documented patterns of discrimination that penalize those with family-care responsibilities.
The Program on Gender, Work, and Family has conducted studies focusing on the role that the stereotyping of mothers and part-time work has played in workplace discrimination, and that reveal that assessments of women’s competence fall sharply when they have children or go part-time—even if their job performance remains unchanged. In its role as an advocacy center, the program serves businesses that wish to integrate best practices, and educates the public and policy makers alike.
One principle on which the program’s research and mission are founded is the need to restructure workplaces to reflect the values people hold in family life, and to reduce the economic vulnerability of children and families. Joan Williams advises companies to take a closer look at the way they treat mothers; not only is there a potential for liability, there is also evidence that the courts are beginning to find liability in this context. “Companies would do well to implement truly family-friendly programs,” she says, “so they can move from being just family-friendly on paper to becoming family-friendly on the ground.”|
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Bond, James T., with Cindy Thompson, Ellen Galinsky, and David Prottas. Highlights of the National Study of the Changing Workforce: Executive
Summary No. 3 (Families and Work Institute, 2002): 29–37.
Crittenden, Ann. The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job
in the World Is Still the Least Valued, rev. ed. Owl Books, 2002.
Mothers Ought to Have Equal Rights; www.mothersoughttohaveequalrights.org
Williams, Joan, and Nancy Segal. “The New Glass Ceiling: Mothers—and Fathers—Sue for Discrimination,” 2nd ed. The Program on Gender, Work & Family, American University, Washington College of Law (December 2002).