family-friendly workplace policies are the new norm?
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
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
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,
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
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