Wednesday, March 4, 2015

How American Work Culture Hurts Everyone (especially women)

I read an article today that really got me thinking about our work culture. The article was about Katherine Zaleski who used to be president of a company and in that role she discriminated against other women who were mothers, assuming they did not have the time to dedicate to their jobs fully. But then she became a mother and was faced with the dilemma of work/life balance. She decided to quit her office job and start a company with a friend that supports women in tech fields who want to work from home. Sounds like a noble effort to accommodate women's roles as both mothers and wage earners (article here).
      However, I do take some issue with the article as a whole. While I cringed at her admission of the terrible way she judged mothers, her "redemption" story also left me disappointed. While I do admire what she is trying to do now, by providing avenues for work from home (something coveted, competitive and often difficult to arrange), I am disappointed that she had to quit her office job. In fact, the whole article felt more like an advertisement for her new start-up company than anything that would actually help women who currently face the dilemma of work/life balance as mothers (unless they work in the technical industry and want to use her new company's services to find a new job).
      Women finding new employment after having a baby is not a novel idea. Often, however, the options are as limited as the pay. Work from home jobs, or jobs that are off-hours to balance child care with a partner, are jobs that generally aren't as lucrative. Instead of encouraging women to find new (limited) jobs that accommodate them, why can't we demand more flexibility from more industries and businesses? Research shows that being flexible with your employees on how and where they work shows an increase in productivity and job satisfaction.
       One point the Fortune article makes is that we put too much weight on actual hours logged in the office, and less on amount and quality of work produced. This is something that has always bothered me about American work culture, and it is something that really doesn't benefit anyone. Any worker (mother or otherwise) who has life obligation and is not able to "burn the midnight oil" might be seen as an underachiever. While I acknowledge that there are instances where staying late is needed, it should not be the norm. If someone manages their time well and works efficiently, they ought to be able to leave on time most days. If not, perhaps they are not the dedicated, hard-working, great-example-of-an-employee, but rather someone who is inefficient with their time and thus has to stay late to complete their work. Or perhaps the company is asking them to do too much, especially if they are salaried and only getting paid for a 40 hour/week commitment but then expected to do 60+ hours of work.
      Not only that, but with modern technology some employees are expected to always be reachable and to respond to emails/texts/calls no matter the time or day. While we like to think that all of this extra work effort is helping America (and Americans) there is little evidence that it is. Just take this report comparing the American economy to Germany's, and this guys who nicely sums up the difference in work culture between the two countries. For all our effort we are earning less and saving less, even if we are spending more. Which also begs the question, what are we spending our money on if all of our time is spent at work? With all of this emphasis on "work ethic" as only evidenced by number of hours spent at your work desk, it is no wonder that women feel anxious about and discriminated against for starting families. This is just another part of the intricate web that keeps women from having equal footing with men, and the fact that it is the women, and not men, who are expected to change their whole lives for their children is topic for a blog post all its own.
       In closing I would like to acknowledge that a lot of companies are moving to be more flexible. They are invested in their employees' quality of life and job satisfaction with the understanding that those employees will work harder and be more loyal. It's these flexible companies that are attracting the best, most qualified employees and are experiencing the most growth and profits for their efforts. So my hope and prayer is that it is only a matter of time before accommodating work schedules are the norm and no one has to choose between having a job and staying home with their children. As Katherine Zaleski does point out in her article "if you want something done ask a busy person to do it" and therefore, no one should be reluctant to hire a busy parent.

photo credit: <a href="">Portrait of a female executive</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">(license)</a>