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Wake up call

Think family-friendly workplace policies are the new norm? Think again.

By Sara Eversden

Lately I’ve been questioning how family-friendly the workplace has really become in addition to wondering why women business leaders aren’t doing more to help create a work environment that would allow more women to succeed.

I am the mother of three children ages 6, 3 and 2 and live in suburban Arizona. Prior to having children I worked as a healthcare consultant with a large international professional services firm. I resigned shortly after my first child was born because my job required a great deal of travel along with unpredictable and long hours. I recognized shortly after my son’s birth that I couldn’t be as hands on as I wanted to be if I had a job that required so much of my time and attention.

I landed a part-time job with a major healthcare organization within months of my son’s birth. Six years later, I still work for this organization, and have depended on telecommuting and flextime to balance the challenges of parenting our three children and working for pay 20 to 32 hours a week. This flexible work arrangement has worked extremely well as it allows me to stay in my profession while still spending a great deal of time with our kids.

The management in my current department is very supportive of work flexibility and work-life effectiveness. But recently I was "on loan" for several months to another department, and during that time I performed my work directly for my temporary supervisor and had little day-to-day interaction with my colleagues and the supervisor in my own department.

During that time, I took an opportunity to telecommute from home -- something that I frequently do, but hadn't done since I’d been “loaned” to the other department. Following good telecommuting protocol I emailed in advance those I would be working for/with informing them that I would be telecommuting and giving them my phone contact info.

When I checked my email while working from home on my telecommuting day, I received a somewhat threatening message from the person responsible for assigning me work in my temporary position, informing me that department policy prohibited telecommuting.

I was absolutely stunned! These two departments with employees literally working side by side had completely different policies and attitudes about work flexibility. It didn’t make sense to me that one department could have such restrictive policies that disallowed telecommuting while the other has several employees who telecommute on a routine basis. I was also baffled that an employer would choose to have a policy prohibiting telecommuting in today's work environment, given the diversity of the workforce and the technology available to make working remotely so easy and effective.

This experience made me look around the office the next time I was on location. I was amazed to discover just how "un-diverse" it really was. I was surrounded by men ages 20 to retirement, women older than me who had grown children, and younger women who were either single or had no children. I was one of the few women with young children that I could identify.

This was quite a shock to me. Being a college educated, white, middle-class, blonde-haired, green-eyed female, I’m accustomed to “fitting in” with the majority – I recognize myself as a member of a privileged class, if you will. But I realized that while I look pretty much like everyone else in my workplace, the fact that I am a mother with caregiving responsibilities places me squarely in a minority situation with my employer. It was a real wake up call.

The department I was loaned to currently has two job openings for full-time employees, and I’m tempted to apply for one of them as a part-time employee -- just because I’d like to challenge the inflexible thinking that is standard practice within this department. Even if I were denied the position because I will only accept part-time work, at least it would introduce these managers to the idea that there are people who can contribute and perform well, but just can't have their butt in a chair 40 hours a week! That would be progress, I think.

Secondly, this experience has made me wonder about the validity of the information shared in Working Mothers Magazine's recent ranking of Top 100 employers for working mothers. I'm sure there are pockets of managers at many organizations who are big proponents of work life effectiveness and whose workers benefit from it. But I bet that for many of these organizations held up as models for the rest of corporate America to emulate, work life effectiveness still has a long way to go and that in the trenches, it just isn’t happening.

Policies supporting a flexible work environment may be on the increase, but I question how frequently those policies are successfully implemented. My own experience suggests that the availability of flexible work arrangements is sporadic and more dependent on who you happen to report to than dependent on a corporate wide policy. Yet, to read the popular press articles, one would think that corporate America has been reformed and businesses are catering to people with caregiving responsibilities or those that wanted more work-life balance. I think this contributes to a fallacy that younger women are buying into --that it is possible to "Have It All", when the reality is it just can’t be done.

I was recently given an opportunity to attend a Women's Business Leadership Forum here in Phoenix. I was unable to attend because of childcare issues (isn't that a statement in itself?). But as I was looking through the brochure it struck me that all the presentations and roundtables were focused on women learning to become better leaders and developing better leadership skills and learning to network -- all the things that men have been doing and been mentored to do for years. Of course those are the topics a women’s leadership forum should address, right?

What bugged me about it is that for the most part, these types of events (business gatherings of women) fail to address the full spectrum of issues that women face. Why not include sessions that speak to finding ways to change corporate America so that more women with leadership talent have access to positions of influence? Why are there no sessions on how women can be leaders in all facets of society and not just in the workplace? There's more to life than work, isn't there? Why are women compartmentalizing just as men have for years by differentiating success in the workplace from success at home and success as community members?

Something like 80 percent of women become mothers. So why in business gatherings of women do we continue to gloss over the fact that as primary caregivers we face a different set of challenges, yet still have the desire and ability to be successful in the workplace? More women who have the talent and ability to lead could be successful in the workplace if the right support was available. We aren't helping our case any by ignoring the fact that caregiving is such a huge aspect of our lives. It breeds the popular fiction that corporate America is now accommodating mothers when, by and large, it isn't.

It also sets those women who try to balance work and family up for failure, because they’ve been led to believe all is well in the land of working moms – women who may ultimately feel forced to “opt out” of paid work because the support and flexibility they need just isn't there.

mmo : december 2003

The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policy positions of the MMO or its staff.
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