Contributed by Jacqueline Church
The Glass Hammer article “Why Working Mothers Lie” and the comments that followed it illustrate what can go wrong when work and family issues are mishandled at the workplace. The problem is not bias against working mothers, though it exists. It’s not preferential treatment for working parents, though this too exists. Accommodationist policies, entitlement attitudes, and how we measure employees’ contributions are all part of the problem. Another culprit is an institutional unwillingness to drop “either/or” thinking in favor of “both/and” thinking. As in, we can either support working moms or we can have good business results.
The “Problem” of Working Mothers
First, it’s not just working mothers who need help. Working parents, employees caring for elderly relatives, and employees with non-family needs all could benefit from flexible scheduling. All types of employees can function more productively with better systems to manage the competing demands of work and life outside work.
Many companies don’t do well at measuring performance to begin with. Annual reviews become an arbitrary exercises and employees don’t know where they stand. Many otherwise well-run companies fail to train managers in doing performance evaluations well. The incidence of these reviews being poorly handled keeps a fair number of stomachs on edge and attorneys on call.
Still, the problems faced by working mothers won’t go away. We have come to expect that “companies that care” and those that are among the Fortune 500 “most admired” should offer working mothers flexible work arrangements. An industry has developed around how to successfully leverage child care benefits, elder care benefits or flexible work arrangements to achieve optimal employee retention and performance.
Developing good policy and practice around the implementation of flexible work arrangements (FWAs) is central to enhancing recruiting, strengthening employee retention and satisfaction, eliciting discretionary effort. This is why FWAs have spread from industries such as banking that traditionally hired large numbers of women, to consulting or professional services firms, manufacturing companies, and nearly all industries.
Observations from Around the Workforce and On the News
For nearly a decade, I worked as an attorney for a big law firm. Here are a few observations culled from years inside the business. One, the need for more creative thinking about productivity is as constant as our failure to harness that creativity to achieve the desired performance. Two, we’ve lost significant ground in the public perception of flexible work arrangements. Finally, many people still think of these FWAs as unfair accommodations or favors for working mothers. And resent them for it.
Another characteristic of the workforce that has barely changed is the male-dominated organizational structure. When executives have stay-at-home wives, it’s difficult for them to understand the problem. Even women at the top sometimes fail to appreciate how different their lives are from those under her. A CEO’s recent advice to utilize your administrative assistant to screen after school calls from your children is an example.
Many executive women rely on a network of support that includes nannies, administrative assistants and neighbors. They have to. The demands of corporate success remain inflexible. The amount of support required for a healthy home life remains constant, too.
One executive said to me: “Women pick the wrong husbands and then expect the company to make up for it.” I learned a lot from her. Yes, her. Some of her advice and *wisdom* I left behind, some of it I have adopted. One of her best skills was managing the men above her. She insisted that it was not a foolish thing to pay attention to them and their perceptions. Ironically, one her pieces of advice has great relevance to the FWA question.
On how to manage clients’ expectations she said this: “They care FIRST that you’re AVAILABLE. Second that you’re affable. Third, that you’re able.” We’d all like to think that the third is the most important and the other two will take care of themselves. Still, I’ve found her words to be true. Again, not an “either/or” proposition, but a good reminder.