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Strong Female Lead

Are Corporate Expense Policies Biased Against Women?

Some companies are starting to question their reimbursement policies for working mothers.

Are Corporate Expense Policies Biased Against Women?

[Photo: Flickr user Alexander Mueller]

In most jobs, your everyday living expenses are your own responsibility. Commuting, lunch, and childcare are funded out of your salary for a normal workweek. But at a number of companies, if you stay late, or travel, you can submit some extra expenses for reimbursement. Which expenses are reimbursable, however, has traditionally been decided through the mind-set that someone should be at home looking after any dependents you have without money exchanging hands. Or as Dawn Bovasso wrote in a recent commentary for Fortune:

"You can get $30 for takeout if you work late (because your wife isn’t there to cook you dinner) or $30 for scotch if you want to drink your face off, but you can’t get $30 for a sitter (because your wife is at home with the kids)."

Bovasso, a single mom in the advertising field, recounted a celebration dinner that a former employer had arranged. To attend, she’d be on the hook for extra babysitting from 6 p.m. to midnight, plus car fare home for her sitter. She decided the dinner was important enough that she went, but once there, she found out that several of her male coworkers were staying in the adjacent hotel so they wouldn’t have to drive home after drinking.

"As someone sensitive to how the workplace is biased toward men, I couldn’t help but wonder if they would get to expense their hotel stay—meanwhile, their wives were at home taking care of their kids (for free, obviously)." It didn’t make sense to her that their barriers to attending were covered, but not hers. So she asked to be reimbursed. After much discussion, she was, but as one of the few female creative directors in the advertising industry, she had leverage. "Many women aren’t in the position to ask for, much less get, this kind of approval."

The take-away: Expense policies are yet another way that the business world keeps women from reaching the top.

Personal Choices Versus Work Necessities

Of course, that’s not a cut-and-dried conclusion. Expense policies are often closely tied to what businesses can deduct. The IRS states, "Generally, you cannot deduct personal, living, or family expenses."

There’s also a slippery slope question of what is a necessary expense incurred in the course of doing extra work, and what is the result of personal choices that are none of an employer’s business. Bovasso’s male coworkers could have argued that the $200 she got toward the evening was an extra perk for her, and one they’d like to pocket as well. Having a stay-at-home partner may be helpful for an employee’s career in the short run, but over the long haul, it represents a lot of foregone income for the family itself.

However, as companies take the broader view of how to keep women moving up the ranks, some are addressing this same dilemma that Bovasso faced. According to Krista Carothers, senior research editor at the Working Mother Research Institute, of the organizations on the 2015 Working Mother 100 Best Companies list, 35% offer business travel childcare reimbursement, and 23% offer overtime childcare reimbursement.

A Changing Dynamic

"These are the companies that really value moms, and parents as a whole, including dads, and they are doing everything they can to make sure that moms are valued, feel valued, feel supported, and are able to keep moving in their careers, despite these traditional things that hold us back," says Carothers.

The danger these policies are trying to head off is that a single mother might decide the cost of an evening’s childcare is too high, and so she elects not to attend a celebration dinner. Because she is not there, she doesn’t bond with the higher-ups who are there to toast everyone’s success. Because she doesn’t get this face time with management, she’s not in the front of their minds as they’re figuring out promotions.

"It’s always been that women were home, and dads were the ones not worrying about childcare when working late or going on business trips," says Carothers. "These companies recognize that this dynamic isn’t in place anymore." Plenty of parents are single parents, and two couple families may be two career families, with each partner having their own overtime and travel complications.

To be sure, these company-wide policies reimbursing extra childcare are relatively rare—even among the companies recognized by Working Mother magazine. Carothers reports that these policies have not become more prevalent in recent years, either. In plenty of organizations, much comes down to the situation Bovasso experienced: individuals negotiating with their managers about what resources they need to do their jobs.

The idea that a $200 babysitting bill is a personal expense, but a $200 bottle of wine is just part of business is based on a certain mind-set. Says Carothers: "It’s hard to get away from that mind-set completely because it’s so ingrained in us all."

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