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Can you have a job and a life?

An excerpt from "Taking On The Big Boys"

By Ellen Bravo

You've come a long way, mama.

Consider yourself lucky this slogan doesn't grace some brand of cigarette or diaper or feminine hygiene product. Ad executives surely know that the most dramatic changes for women in the workplace have occurred among mothers. For better or worse, most moms are employed outside the home, even the majority of mothers of infants -- a number the Bureau of Labor Statistics didn't even track until the mid-1970s. Employers no longer have the right to fire women for being pregnant. Mothers -- and fathers -- are allowed to spend time with new or seriously ill children, thanks to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

Myth: All Women Have Maternity Leave
That's the good news. The bad news is this hard-won legal protection has loopholes large enough for a pregnant woman to walk through sideways. Take the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act. This law states that if you're expecting a baby, you can't be fired or refused a job or treated differently from other employees. So far, so good. But it doesn't require your employer to keep your job open during maternity leave. I've never understood how giving away your job fails to qualify as firing you -- but remember, we live in a world where the highest court once ruled that pregnancy has nothing to do with sex. If your employer offers temporary disability insurance, the policy must treat pregnancy the same as other short-term disabilities. In other words, if a coworker gets paid time off when his gall bladder is removed, you're entitled to the same benefits when you deliver a baby. That's a step forward from the days when pregnancy was excluded as a disability along with injuries that were "willfully self-inflicted or incurred during the perpetration of a high misdemeanor." But it doesn't help the majority of women who work for firms with no short-term disability policies to begin with. And not all employers gave it willingly. In the mid-1980s, when Sheila Ashley was a captain in the army, her superior officer tried to limit her maternity leave to four weeks instead of six. "He said women are getting pregnant for those six weeks of leave," she told me. "Like six weeks off makes up for a lifetime of parenthood."

Some of the problem was addressed in 1993 with passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act. Thanks to this law, not only does your employer have to allow you to take time off to have a baby, you also have the right to return from leave to the same or equivalent job. But here's the fine print: In order to qualify under the law, you must work for a firm of more than 50 employees, have been on the job for at least a year, and work there more than 25 hours a week. As a result, more than two in five private sector workers aren't covered. And many of those who are covered can't afford to take the leave because it's unpaid. Others work for employers who simply break the law -- like the woman whose boss looked at her in her eighth month of pregnancy and said, "I was going to put you in charge of the office, but look at you now." Or the pregnant employee whose manager was ordered to fire her for wearing flat shoes and needing to sit down occasionally -- even though she worked in a maternity clothing store. When the manager failed to carry out the order, she was fired along with the subordinate.

Myth: Most Workers Can Take Time to Care for Sick Family Members
The FMLA has other limitations. Family is narrowly defined. When I served on the bipartisan Commission on Leave, appointed by Congress in 1994 to evaluate the impact of this law on employers and employees, a woman testifying at one of our hearings thanked us for allowing her to spend time with her brother when he was dying of AIDS. "Thank your employer," I told her during the break. The law doesn't include siblings -- or domestic partners, grandparents, in-laws, or any other relative besides children, spouse, and parents.

Think of Rosemary, for example. Her desk has no picture of her longtime partner, Louise, because Rosemary works for an employer who could and would fire her if he knew she were a lesbian. What's worse in Rosemary's view is that she couldn't take off when Louise had breast cancer surgery. "I'd have used vacation days," she said, "but we have to give advance notice and the cancer just wasn't considerate enough to warn us." Rosemary did use vacation days to accompany Louise to most of her chemotherapy sessions -- "a helluva vacation," she added.

That's another shortcoming of the FMLA -- it applies only to "serious illness." Fortunately, not all children get leukemia -- but they do all get the flu and ear infections, which are not covered. From time to time, children need their parents to be at school for a conference or play or sporting event; they have routine doctor appointments; they must be immunized or school won't admit them. Yet the law provides time off for none of these events. For low-wage workers, three-fourths of whom lack paid sick days, taking a day to be with a sick child can mean not only losing your wages but facing disciplinary action as well. The results? Teachers we interviewed say they've never seen so many kids coming to school sick because their parents can't take time off from work. As for their parents, many are like Judy, a factory worker in northern Wisconsin, who told me, "I go to work when I'm sick or in pain." As for doctor or dental appointments for herself or her kids? "We don't go, or I use my vacation."

Myth: The Workplace Is Family Friendly
Even when workers have the right and the means to take time off, corporate culture pressures them not to. We're deluged with commercials for cold and flu treatments that tell you how to make it to work when you're sick. Men who take more than the occasional day or week of vacation when a new baby is born are badgered about whether they're really writing a novel. "What are doing, breastfeeding that baby yourself?" demanded a friend's supervisor after this new father had been off (using vacation time) for one week.

The problem has even made its way into popular culture. If you have young children or take many long flights, you may have seen the movie Home Alone 3. In this one, the boy comes down with chickenpox. His mother is caring for him when the boss calls to demand she come in for a meeting. "Thanks for making me choose between making the house payment and taking care of my child," she says. Regretfully she informs her son he'll have to stay home alone for a while. "But, Mom," he pleads, "what about the Family Leave Act?" The law's on his side -- but the boss isn't.

Adding to the culture problem is the lack of training and accountability for many supervisors. A few years ago, the vice president of a large retail corporation came to see me. She was drafting a memo from the CEO to managers about how they sabotaged the company's leave policies. Here's the gist of the memo: "When our people ask you about leave policies, you tell them what's available -- but then you add, 'Boy, will you be sorry if you use them.' They hear only the second message." Alas, this enlightened CEO (not to mention his female VP), whose memo went on to require an end to these tactics, stands among the exceptions. More common are examples cited by work-life consultants, such as the CEO at a dot-com company who, when asked about instituting concierge services to handle dry cleaning and take-out food, replied: "Anything that will glue these people to their desk for an extra hour is worth its weight in gold." Responding to a survey about flexible schedules, a financial company CEO summed up his enthusiastic support: "My chief in-house counsel has lots of flexibility. She can work her 80 hours any way she wants."

Indeed, most of Corporate America continues to function as if all employees were still men with wives at home full time. Faith Wohl, formerly work-family manager at DuPont, described a senior finance executive who balked when she met with him to explain the company's new work-life policies. "I don't believe your statistics," he said, referring to numbers that showed the majority of DuPont's employees are in dual-earner couples. Wohl pointed out that he made his living working with numbers. "Yes," he said, "but no one in my neighborhood, my church, or my circle of friends has a wife who works outside the home. How could it be true of the majority of our employees?" If you think your world is the world and you're a top decision-maker, your front-line workers are in for a heap of trouble.

Reality: A Lot of Lip Service
Even the so-called best places to work are often not what they're cracked up to be. In 1992, Sprint won a place on Working Mother magazine's list of the top 100 places for women to work. Sprint operators were amazed as they read the descriptions of flextime, job-sharing, and adoption aid, which none of them enjoyed. It turned out the company did have such policies -- but only for managers. If you were a customer agent, the sole flexible option open to you was to be 15 minutes late once within a three-month period, provided you made up the 15 minutes at the end of that shift. (The operators signed a petition to the magazine expressing their objection -- the company failed to make the list the following year.) A friend's husband works at a company frequently on "best lists" for its work-life policies. Yet when he applied for a promotion, his manager told him his "family obligations were a factor against him." Only after an expensive nationwide search failed to find someone did they offer him the job.

Many employers say they have flexible policies -- but a closer look reveals that the policies are up to manager discretion. Consider the printing company on Long Island, which had won awards for its on-site childcare center but also had a policy of mandatory overtime. In the late 1990s, one worker told me what happened when her mother was dying and she wanted to leave work at 5 p.m. every day. "What's the problem?" her manager told her. "Your child is in the center and they're open until 6." She explained about her mother's condition. "Well," he demanded, "how long is this thing with your mother going to last?"

Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric who's reinvented himself as a corporate guru, let the cat out of the bag in his 2005 book, Winning. "I have a sense of how bosses think about the issue," he alerts the reader. In reality, the family friendly lingo you hear is mostly "lip service." And that's not a problem, according to Welch, because if the boss is "doing his job right, he is making your job so exciting that your personal life becomes a less compelling draw." Welch fondly recalls what a "blast" he had all those Saturdays at the office. His advice: Figure out that work-family stuff on your own and keep your mouth shut about it. "People who publicly struggle with work-life balance problems and continually turn to the company for help," he warns, "get pigeonholed as ambivalent, entitled, uncommitted, incompetent -- or all of the above." When I asked a group of my graduate students, all HR staff, to respond, they blasted Welch for wasting the opportunity to give leadership on the topic. The most poignant response came from a woman who signed her paper as "the child of a twenty-plus-year GE employee who never saw her mom at sporting events, had to make her own meals since she was eight years old, and who grew up in second place to a job."

Reality: To Advance, You Need a Wife
The policies we need already exist in many companies, and studies consistently show these to be good for the bottom line. In particular, research confirms that the cost of leave is much less than the cost of replacing the employee permanently. But most policies exist on the fringes of a company's operation. They don't touch a fundamental problem about Corporate America, namely, in order to get ahead, you have to be available for long hours of "face time," and be able to meet, move, or travel at a moment's notice. It's very hard to do that unless you have a wife at home full-time, or no life. As high profile executive divorces remind us, few CEO's move up without a wife to entertain, volunteer in the community, and take care of the home front.

I remember hearing Barbara Jones, then-editor at Harper's, tell of interviewing managers concerning work-family issues. One had confronted a male senior executive who called a meeting at 7 p.m. "I know you have kids, too," the lower-level manager said. "How can you be at this meeting?" The answer: "I have a wife." No wonder that 80 percent of top executives are men with wives at home full time -- and more than half of female senior executives have no children.

Feminist Solutions
Can you have a job and a life without having a wife at home full time? Sure -- but only with significant change in how business does business, how society values families and how families divide up the work.

What's needed is not that complicated -- time to care for loved ones or yourself, access to reliable, quality caregivers when you're unable to provide care, and enough income to afford both the time off and the outside help.

Mmo : august 2007

Excerpt from Taking on the Big Boys, or Why Feminism is Good for Families, Business, and the Nation, by Ellen Bravo, published by the Feminist Press at CUNY, 2007. Reprinted with publisher's permission.

Also on MMO:

Taking on the Big Boys -- and how to get started:
An interview with Ellen Bravo

Interview by Judith Stadtman Tucker

Beyond bumper stickers:
An introduction to working for change

By Judith Stadtman Tucker

Why be political?
By Kristin Teigen

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