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>


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  2. I think it's a fantastic idea for businesses to be as flexible as possible with their workers. I'd say it depends substantially on what kind of profession you're in as to whether that's actually an option or not. If you have a project-based or target-based job (say, an accountant who needs to finish payroll by a given time, or a sales job that has a quota), then giving your worker a specific time frame and allowing them to complete the tasks in the time and manner of their choosing would seem entirely plausible. However, for many jobs, your work hours are dictated by consumer hours (retail, medical, and transportation jobs, for instance), and flexible hours or working from home aren't always plausible. In the current environment, if a working couple decides to have children, they have to make a decision as to how they want to raise it - does one parent give up a good career (at least until the child enters school) to be home full-time, do they each try to alter their schedules and take care of the child on opposite schedules (and only rarely see each other), do they keep their respective jobs and pay for child care (with one person's career largely going to subsidize said child care)? These are incredibly tough decisions.

    Ideally, we'd live in a world that would accommodate a standard 30 hour work week for a parent, where school runs from 9-5 every day and work goes 10-4. At least then, a parent would only have to deal with how to bridge the age gap between birth and when the child enters preschool. And that could partially be assisted with at-work child care, but that's a separate discussion. I think America is highly conflicted about working motherhood. To take a small political detour, it's based on the traditional conservative notions of heavy work ethic, a woman's place being at home, being pro-business and not wanting to pay leave benefits, etc. In a highly traditional conservative culture, a woman expects not to have a career and expects her role to be primarily as a homemaker. I know many women that are (or appear) legitimately fulfilled abandoning their previous working lives to take care of the kids and household and put the financial onus on the husband to provide. The "equal but different" model. In a progressive society, where both parents are seen as having a shared and equal responsibility, both financial and child-wise, businesses and social institutions are much more accommodating by necessity, because frankly men have made the rules and are more than willing to make life easier on themselves when they're expected to raise the children. If we as a culture really wanted to incentivize women to have children and return to the workforce, there are plenty of great examples in the Scandinavian countries, but they require a collective idea of shared sacrifice (and higher taxes). See: Sweden.

    Anyhow, great and interesting blog post, Kim. I know Michelle and I have discussed this at length, and it's a shame that the current American work environment all but requires at least one parent (usually the woman) to sacrifice a career they've worked hard for, or to relinquish child-rearing duties to an expensive child care facility (and even then, as you and the article point out, overlong work hours can render that an impossibility). The American work culture really does largely make it an either/or for a working prospective parent. Very unfortunate.

    1. Mike, Thanks for the very thoughtful response. I know that not all careers have the ability to be flexible, and you're right, it's about more than just flexibility in industries that allow. It's about our entire culture and our priorities, which seem to favor corporations over families, unfortunately. This is something that Democrats should be trying to voice louder - that they support families way more than the Republicans who only claim to support families but really only support corporations and "religious freedom" as far as it benefits corporations.