I recently finished Jay Newton Small’s “Broad Influence,” a book about how achieving a critical mass of women in a variety of public and private institutions is not only good for women, but the customers or stakeholders of that institution. I highly recommend picking it up, and she references a library of recent books on women’s role outside of the home (Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In,” Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Unfinished Business,” Hanna Rosin’s “The End of Men“), all of which I devoured almost as soon as they were released. As a professional mom to two young children, I clearly care about this topic, but I wish more men would read these books as well, particularly the men who still dominate the upper echelons of leadership in the private sector, all three branches of government, and the military.
I’ll save you the book reviews but relate my personal experience to this. Before Sheryl Sandberg advised women to seek a mate who would be fully supportive of their professional ambitions, I made that a top priority. My husband and I balance careers, his in health information technology and mine in civil rights law, that involve travel expectations. We are both incredibly passionate about our children and enjoy being actively engaged in their young lives and education. We are committed to an equal partnership in life. And yet, I find that outside institutions undermine us and other couples seeking this balance in unhealthy and frustrating ways.
First, the relentless emphasis on productivity from individual workers makes a 40 hour work week insufficient for too many jobs, professional and otherwise. As Slaughter noted in her book, far too many organizations operate on the assumption that there is someone (aka a “wife”) taking care of the personal needs of the employee and his or her family. Someone has to manage the household duties, children’s activities and education, and extended family and other social obligations. Yet the extended work hours in too many positions means that one or both parents cannot fulfill all of the non-work duties. The ones fortunate enough to afford it can outsource much of this work with house cleaners, financial planners, nannies, carpools, and tutors. Some are lucky enough to have retired grandparents to help with child care, chauffeuring, tutoring, and household tasks. The rest of us muddle through, paying bills late at night, letting the house go, and sacrificing time as a couple to make up for the time lost with kids. Organizations in the private and public sector are offering more flexible and part-time options for working parents; however, in most cases, promotion potential is negatively affected because supervisory or executive level positions are not offered with flexible, part-time, or job-sharing options. As Slaughter indicates, research indicates people are truly productive for a maximum of six hours per day, yet the corporate expectation is often at least 10.
In our family, Doug travels frequently and often for multiple overnights, often with little notice or flexibility, particularly around the end of the business quarter. When he’s gone, I’m running kids to soccer practice, taking leave when a kid gets sick, and navigating homework, bath, and bedtime solo. He does the same when I am gone, but I have far more flexibility in scheduling my travel, fortunately. I have successfully negotiated reduced schedules in current and previous work positions so that one of us is able to take kids to practices and help minimize the craziness of the dinner, homework, bath, and bedtime routine. In my experience, however, staying “part-time” is difficult if not well ingrained in the organization due to the ongoing pressure to do more with less, despite the evidence regarding productivity and overwork. We are hanging on to this arrangement for now. However, I have had several friends recently leave wonderful careers because despite their employers’ attempts at flexibility, it didn’t function well enough in reality for them to continue. This is a tremendous and avoidable loss for their organizations. As Rosin points out in her book, the “soft skills” attributed to women in communications, organization, and relationship-building are increasingly in demand in today’s information and services economy, and leadership in these areas are sorely needed.
Second, our antiquated school calendar creates complications for families with two parents working outside of the home. The outdated agrarian school calendar with an extended summer means that families agonize over the extra expense of child care or a series of summer camps for several months. Teachers often spend the first month in the fall catching up students after their “summer slide,” especially for students who are already behind educationally. The typical school day also does not coincide with general business hours, meaning parents have to find before and after school child care or reduce their hours to drop off and pick up children. Again, in a time when schools are cutting recess and physical education to cram in more instructional time, wouldn’t it make more sense to lengthen the school day and build that time back in? It would certainly require more financial support for school systems but it would be a worthwhile investment.
We are again fortunate to live in a school district that offers four weeks of free summer school with low-cost before and after school care at the site, and a school-sponsored summer camp that covers all but two remaining weeks of the summer. You better bet I sign up for the summer camp quickly because there are limited spaces and they go fast. My son’s school doesn’t start until 8:45 a.m. and I need to get to work by 8:00 a.m. As a result, before-school care is a necessity. Although I am sometimes able to pick up my son by his 3:45 p.m. dismissal time, because my husband is not and I sometimes am traveling or working extra hours, we also pay for after-school care that we often do not need. The reason I am writing at this moment is because I used a vacation day to care for my son, whose school is on spring break. Parents in my neighborhood who have kids in different schools in the same district have to deal with start times for kids that are two hours apart, making it hard for parents to ensure kids get to school safely and also get to work on time. Not all parents work a traditional business calendar. However, increasing the availability of before- and after-school care at schools and lengthening the school day is a necessity for contemporary families.
There are many more ways institutions undermine working parents, and the two I raise primarily affect working professional parents. The troubles with shift work positions offered by companies like Starbucks and Wal-Mart are well-documented and mean that parents have trouble obtaining quality child care for their unpredictable and erratic work schedules. Too many working parents work for employers who do not offer paid sick leave, meaning a child’s illness can lead to a parent’s termination or a loss of wages. I could go on and on, but instead will encourage everyone to read the books I referenced at the beginning of this post, and think hard about the real economic, social, and personal costs we are incurring as a result of antiquated work policies that are based on a family model that is no longer the norm. We can advocate as voters, employees, and leaders to make family-friendly institutional changes that will also improve work culture and, ultimately, institutional performance. We can vote for and promote leaders who support these changes and actively work toward them.