By Nadia Ramoutar Reardon
Issue 100, May/June 2000
It was a moment of truth I will never forget. I was with the president of the company I worked for returning from a business trip. We were running through the busy Dallas Airport terminal only to discover our flight had been delayed. Realizing that I would not see my ten-month-old baby for another five hours was enough to create a flood of emotion--and breastmilk. It was during my mad dash to the ladies room that the reality hit: "What am I trying to accomplish here? I must be crazy!" I certainly felt like I was.
Like most overachieving employed mothers, my life had turned into a bad episode of "Career Mom Meets Nature in a Head-on Collision." Personally, it was yet another life lesson that my master's degree had ill prepared me for. Over the next few months, I discovered the inflexibility of the American workplace: Choose your career or choose time with your baby. I was not alone in facing this conundrum.
Becoming a mother is a life-enhancing experience that leads to greater creativity, sensitivity, and compassion. This is, however, a transition that is not always appreciated by those with a vested interest in "business as usual." Despite the informational and technological breakthroughs in the workplace, many women are struggling with the conflict of being a natural mother in an unnatural world of work. It can feel like a covert operation of a corporate conspiracy that aims to keep women dazed and disappointed--but still seated at their desks. Part of the difficulty is that today's workplace is still structured to meet the needs of the full-time 1950s male or his single, subservient female colleague. The demographics of the workplace and its rules of operation are, in a word, incongruent.
The numbers speak for themselves: In 1960, only 13 percent of mothers with preschool-age children were employed. In 1998, that number had risen to 63 percent--a 50 percent increase. After years of work experience and, often, years of education, many women resent being forced to choose between child and career. Where is the compassion in the American workplace? Where is the appreciation for the employee?
Family Friendly? The US Lags Behind
From the very start of their child's life, parents in the US are placed at a disadvantage compared to their global counterparts. The International Labor Organization (ILO) reports that 120 countries offer their workers paid maternity leave; our nation's Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) only requires a maximum of 12 weeks unpaid leave following the birth or adoption of a child. US workers are, in short, completely dependent on the kindness of their employer. USA Today reported in September 1999 that only 2 percent of American companies provide paid maternity leave to their employees. This means 98 percent of parents are financially on their own. By contrast, Canadian women earn 25 weeks paid maternity leave. And while our Mexican sisters receive the same 12-week maternity leave we do, it is paid. British mothers get the benefit of 18 weeks paid leave; Japanese moms, 14 weeks.
The National Partnership's Work and Family Program, an advocate for workplace fairness and flexibility, launched in June 1999 the Campaign for Family Leave Income. This initiative followed a survey that showed a 79 percent support for paid family leave (740 women and 375 men were surveyed, with approval ratings of 82 percent and 75 percent respectively). It's worthwhile to note that paid family leave was supported by 81 percent of people without children surveyed.
The emotional difficulty that commonly accompanies the end of maternity leave is often the first indication there's trouble ahead. "You'll be amazed at how long you can spend just staring at your baby. Those few weeks of maternity leave just fly by, and it is very hard to get back to work," explains Dianne Tymeson, a St. Augustine, Florida-based licensed social worker and family therapist. "Sleep deprivation and fluctuating hormones are little help as you return to your former workload."
Trying to breastfeed while working full-time can also be a frustrating and challenging experience. Due to the lack of a designated lactation area, breastfeeding mothers often have to pump in the impersonal (at best) women's bathroom. Privacy for nursing mothers is currently under legislative review.
With corporate lactation programs being the exception rather than the rule, not enough workplaces provide a nursery so mothers can visit their baby and breastfeed during lunch and other breaks. When my son was little, my mother would bring him to my office, and I nursed behind a closed door with shades drawn. I was fortunate to have the privilege of a private office--particularly when one considers that most of the lower-paying jobs in the workforce are occupied by women.
Let's Be Flexible
If our culture really valued the role women contribute to society--as both workers and mothers--it would strive to adapt policies that help working mothers cope. Felice N. Schwartz, in Breaking with Tradition: Women and Work, The New Facts of Life, speculates that the fact that 22 percent of women do not return to their jobs after having a baby results from the US workplace's inability to accommodate the working mother. "I challenge you to imagine what would be the reaction if one-quarter . . . of male employees who had left the workplace for six weeks for any reason chose at the end of that period not to return to their jobs. We'd acknowledge the huge cost for the company that had employed them, and surely, serious steps would be taken to upgrade retention levels in the future."1
Companies that establish flexible workplace policies understand that happy people make productive workers. They are also savvy about the bottom line, because flexible policies can help companies retain educated, experienced, and valued employees. They save companies in other ways, too: lowering employee turnover and decreasing the concomitant recruitment and training expenses, for example--not to mention the brick-and-mortar overhead expenses associated with leasing and/or maintaining physical office space. Flexible workplace policies are measured by completion of task rather than through a watchdog supervisory mode. If a flex-worker is slacking off, it's noticeable because tasks and assignments aren't completed. Here are the three most common options.
Flex-time involves full-time employment, but allows the worker to be present part time and complete his or her responsibilities during the evening or on the weekend. The employee can make telephone and written correspondence during office hours, for example, and complete his or her paperwork and other "non-facetime" projects at other times (like midnight in between feedings with the baby). Independently motivated individuals who have established work goals and deadlines are great candidates for flex-time. Another variant on flex-time is the compressed workweek, where an employee works the same number of hours but in fewer days. A common approach is four, ten-hour workdays a week.
Job sharing allows two people to share one full-time position, prorating salary and some benefits. For example, one person might come in on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and the other employee might work Tuesdays and Thursdays. In other instances, each employee might come in daily for a half-day shift. Coworkers who share positions need to have comparable professional skills and to be in contact with each other, work well together, and be aware of each other's projects and actions. Job sharers might both attend important meetings and other events to show that they are "part of the team."
Technological advances such as e-mail, laptop computers, fax machines, and teleconferencing have made telecommuting (work from home) a viable option for some 19 million US workers.2 People can work from home part time or full time. Their company headquarters could be across town, or it could be in a different part of the country, or even further afield. The telecommuting arrangement serves some international companies well, as they can assemble "virtual teams" that work on a project literally around the clock, from time zone to time zone. Again, the measure of success lies in the employee's ability to meet assignment deadlines on a consistent basis.
These flexible work concepts were widely discussed a decade ago as a panacea for families, employers, and--in the case of telecommuting, at least--even the environment. Their impact, however, has been minimal, as most companies resisted implementing these alluring policies. Although some corporations, such as American Express, have recognized the potential of the flexible workplace, profit-driven corporate America has held back. Today, working parents who approach their bosses with a flexible workplace proposal are likely to hear one of the following ten arguments against it.
" Special arrangements are not fair to coworkers." This is the parity argument, which implies some colleagues will be envious of parents who have a special work arrangement. Consider, however, that the American workplace is already far from equitable; those who occupy senior positions often benefit from greater workplace flexibility. The boss may take longer lunches, for example, make and receive more personal calls, use more corporate benefits, and get paid more for less hours worked. Keep in mind the National Partnership's survey, which, as we've seen, revealed that childless employees are by and large supportive of measures that help their coworkers who have children. A corporation that's sensitive to its employees' welfare is a company that people will want to stay with for the long term--whether they have kids or not.
" Productivity will suffer." What this claim really means is "we don't trust our employees if we are not keeping an eye on them." Since industrial times, American workers have been under surveillance from managers who don't have faith in their employees' ability to do the right thing. In addition to time cards and roaming supervisors, today's technology allows companies to monitor their employees' keystrokes per hour and even time spent away from the desk ("too many restroom breaks, Johnson!").3 Flexible work arrangements are hard to even consider if employee relations are at such a low level of trust. Again, the measure of productivity should lie in the fact that the work gets done. In fact, many employees demonstrate higher levels of productivity when away from the distractions of the office.
" Our people must be accessible." It is certain that employees with flexible jobs have a greater need to communicate with their on-site colleagues. Pagers, voice mail, cell phones, and e-mail all easily address the accessibility issue. Telecommuters often set up twice-daily (or more) check-in calls with the office, and establish dedicated hours where they will be on standby for incoming calls.
" You won't find better arrangements anywhere else." In our current economic climate, this argument holds no water. More and more companies are committed to being family friendly, and others have been forced to do so. Companies that show no compassion or flexibility about long hours, travel, and high stress levels are companies that put their employees, and their families, last.
" If you quit your job now, you won't be able to reenter the workforce." This threat plays upon a woman's insecurity about downshifting out of the rat race. But diminished market value is not automatically the fate of a woman who chooses to sequence, or concentrate on mothering for the years her children are young, returning to full-time work outside the home later. I know a woman who stopped working on her PhD to stay at home and care for her young children. Eight years later, she's translated her writing and research skills to a new career editing for an on-line medical service.
" I wish I could help you, but I just can't." Some managers are just not willing to upset senior management for you or anyone else. You could help them by providing information on how your proposal would work. Having a well-constructed, written plan can help your boss see what you want and how it could work. Mothers can find a model for making such a proposal at the WorkOptions website (www.workoptions.com), which offers advice on how to make a flexible work proposal to your employer.
" If we do this for you, then everyone will want to stay home." Again, this attitude shows that the boss views employees as subordinates who do not understand "the big picture" and cannot adapt to change. Point out that you're uniquely suited to do your job and that this flexibility is something that you need at this stage in your life. By agreeing to your plan, your boss is also giving your coworkers credit for being mature and supportive of you.
" I am a parent, too. Don't you think I understand how hard this is for you?" I remember thinking that if I worked for a woman, she would empathize with my being a new parent. This, I learned, is not something you can count on. For one thing, many employers or managers had their children many years ago and have long forgotten how demanding it can be, or are used to looking at the family-work balance as it was 20 to 30 years ago. Others might expect you to share their priorities and place your career before family. In any case, this is not an argument that is likely to retain employees.
" More money, more money?" It is common to be offered a promotion when you are pregnant or just had a baby. The idea is to give you a higher salary and increased authority so that you will keep your mind on the job. I once told a boss that I needed to travel less. He stared at me and asked: "Is this about money? How much more do you want to keep traveling?" I knew at that moment he and I were worlds apart.
" You'll never make more money working anywhere else--or for yourself." This rationale aims to weaken a working mother's self-esteem. You should have the freedom to make any career change you want. Being self-employed was my solution. Another woman I know earns significantly less at her new job, but has gained the priceless benefit of shorter hours and more flexibility. Many resources can help you decide if it's time for a career change.
Whether you work because you like to or because your economic situation requires it--or even if you don't work outside the home at all--the issue of family-friendly workplaces affects us all. If we can help forge new workplace policies that support the way we live and parent today, we'll all benefit: employers, workers, their families--and our children, when they ultimately enter the workforce.
1. Felice N. Schwartz, Breaking with Tradition: Women and Work, the New Facts of Life (New York: Time Warner, 1992), 58-59.
2. "Cost/Benefits of Teleworking to Manage Work/Life Responsibilities," The International Telework Association and Council's 1999 Telework America National Telework Survey. The executive summary of the research can be found at www.telecommute.org.
3. "Surveillance, Incorporated: American Workers Forfeit Privacy for a Paycheck," American Civil Liberties Union, 1996. See www.aclu.org/library/wrrpt06.html for a summary.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Boldt, Laurence G. Zen and the Art of Making a Living: A Practical Guide to Creative Career Design. Penguin, 1999.
Cardozo, Arlene. Sequencing. Brownstone Books, 1996.
Dinnocenzo, Debra A. 101 Tips for Telecommuters: Successfully Manage Your Work, Team, Technology and Family. Berrett-Koehler, 1999.
Laquer, Maria, and Donna Dickinson. Breaking Out of 9 to 5: How to Redesign Your Job to Fit You. Peterson's Guides, 1994. (Currently out-of-print.)
Langhoff, June. The Telecommuter's Advisor: Real World Solutions for Remote Workers. Aegis Books, 1999. The senior editor of Telecommute Magazine also has a website www.langhoff.com that provides links and other resources.
Nemeth, Lane. Discovering Another Way: Smart Play for Kids, Smart Work for Women. Beyond Words, 1999.
Rubin, Harriet. Soloing: Realizing Your Life's Ambition. HarperCollins, 1999.
Zelinsky, Marilyn. Practical Home Office Solutions. McGraw-Hill, 1999.
Careerbuilders.com. For those who are looking to change jobs, these interactive recruiting experts help companies take a more strategic approach to meeting their recruiting needs. This site has built a reputation as a pioneer in the interactive recruiting industry and developed successful interactive recruiting strategies for leading companies. www.careerbuilders.com.
Families and Work Institute is a nonprofit organization that addresses the changing nature of work and family life. Committed to finding research-based strategies that foster mutually supportive connections among workplaces, families, and communities. www.familiesandworkinst.org.
NetworkingMoms.com. This site was created for moms with kids and a career. It offers a source for resources, advice, inspiration, access to experts, and old-fashioned camaraderie with other working moms. www.networkingmoms. com.
MATCH: Mothers Access to Careers at Home. Empowers women to succeed in home-based businesses and flexible work options by addressing their unique operational needs, providing moral support, and promoting the balance of family and career. www.Freestate.net/match.
Motherwear's "Breastfeeding Welcome Here" Campaign. To encourage acceptance and support of breastfeeding in public places and at work, Motherwear's new campaign helps employers design lactation support programs. Check out www.motherwear.com or call 800-950-2500 for more information.
Mothering's website www.mothering.com provides additional information on breastfeeding legislation.
Telework America. Website of the International Telework Association and Council, an advocacy organization dedicated to raising public awareness about and providing information on the uses and benefits of telecommuting. www.telecommute.org.
The Working Moms' Refuge is produced by and for women juggling babies and dinners, work and sanity. They offer tales, tips, and questions. www.momsrefuge.com.
Workathomeplan.com was created by a single mother who had enough of the corporate world and wanted to be home with her son. Its mission is to help mothers who want to stay home and work turn their dreams into reality. www.workathomeplan.com.
For more information about the workplace and parenting, see the following bulletin in a past issue of Mothering: "Corporate Family Solutions," no. 87.
Nadia Ramoutar Reardon traded in her successful corporate job and frequent-flyer mileage for more frequent play dates with her son Devin (3) and husband John. She loves her new career path as a part-time college instructor and freelance writer living in St. Augustine, Florida, and working from home. She recently completed her first novel and second play.