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Women With Children First?

It’s the new workplace battle — employees juggling work and kids versus childless colleagues who resent having to pick up the slack. Read our debate about “the culture of parental privilege” — and then weigh in with your views.

Want to get a rise out of your local human-resources manager? Ask her this: Does your company value employees with kids more than those without?

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Of course, the answer invariably will be some version of: “Zedco values diversity, and we value all our employees.” But consider: Don’t workers with kids typically get more valuable health benefits? Are they more likely to take advantage of flexible work schedules? Are their childless colleagues often left holding the bag?

This is the often-silent elephant in the room when execs and employees wrangle over the “family-friendly” workplace. Is family-friendliness inherently exclusive? Are workers without kids picking up the tab for the benefits and flexibility granted to those with traditional families? If so, is that morally acceptable? These are incredibly touchy, difficult questions — and in one way or another, they affect nearly everyone who works. They force us to reckon with our definition of a “family,” and to wrestle as individuals and as a society with our priorities. What are we willing to compromise in our work and in our lives? What is the common good, and who should pay for it?

Last month, Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business waded into these choppy waters as part of its 2001 Work/Life Symposium. And Fast Company was there to help navigate the course. In front of 150 MBA students, professors, and alumni, Fast Company moderated a debate between two women with profoundly different views. Writer Elinor Burkett is author of The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless (Free Press, 2000), a book that rails against “the culture of parental privilege.” Nancy Rankin is executive director of the National Parenting Association, a research and advocacy group in New York that proposes greater parents’ rights. Here are excerpts from their lively discussion.

Fast Company: Elinor, you argue that family-friendly practices actually discriminate against people without kids.

Burkett: The Equal Pay Act in 1963 was a triumph because it said that people should be rewarded for what they do at work. Over the past decade, though, that principle has been undermined by the rise of the family-friendly workplace.

For example, Liz Maguire, the former editorial director of the Free Press, which published my book, was single and childless. In the middle of a heavy publishing season, her associate publisher had to go on bed rest for a pregnancy and was off, with pay, for six months. Who did the associate publisher’s work? Liz Maguire. For six months, Liz did two jobs. Is that fair? Is that the way we want business to be running?

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When you give benefits to one group and not to another, it’s always at someone’s expense. Look at the benefits companies give people according to their family size. At Marriott, if you have children, your insurance is worth about $4,000 more than it would be if you were single. Marriott also subsidizes child care to a tune of $5,000 per child per year. So an employee with two kids essentially earns $14,000 a year more than one with no kids. No matter how hard she works, how long she stays, or how loyal she is, a single woman can never be compensated as well as a person with a “family.”

Think about this problem as a manager. Imagine that you’re a supervisor and you have eight account managers working for you. One of them says, “I have kids, and I can’t handle a full work week; I want to work four days a week.” You’re a nice person and a good manager, and you understand her problem and want to keep her. So you say yes. The next week, another employee comes in and says that he saw the schedule you gave Mary and that he needs it too. He wants to write a novel or run marathon — or maybe he doesn’t want to tell you why he needs that schedule. You can only have one employee on a shortened schedule. So how do you decide?

When you try to create a workplace based on an employer’s vision of what is acceptable outside the workplace, you land in a trap. You create a social hierarchy — saying that what one group of people is doing with their time is more important than what another group does. I don’t want people to tell me that taking care of my dying mother is more important than taking care of their kids. I don’t want this issue to turn into a contest, but that’s what it’s becoming. And in the process, we’re allowing employers and the government to define what a family is. They’ve said, in effect, that a family is a father, a mother, and children. Well, I don’t have kids, but I do have a family.

Fast Company: Nancy, you would argue that, if anything, the workplace is not family-friendly enough, right?

Rankin: There’s a myth that the work world has become too family-friendly. And yet, employers admit that only 5% of employees actually take advantage of flextime policies. Most people feel that they’re dependent on the decisions of their immediate managers, who may not be as flexible as company policy. So flexibility in practice isn’t as widespread as you may think.

And not all benefits are tilted in favor of parents. Take flextime. There’s this view that flexible work policies only benefit parents. But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 29% of full-time workers say that they can vary their hours. Among workers without kids, the figure is 27%. So there’s no real difference. Parents have been pushing the edge, but others have taken advantage of it.

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Yes, there are gripes from non-parents — so how do we respond? We say that it’s reasonable for everyone — parents and non-parents — to say have lives. Flexible benefits and cafeteria benefits should be available to all. And we should rethink the way that we design work for everyone.

But this is where we part company. If we’re going to expect and require that men and women both work, we need to make it possible for them to hold jobs and be good parents too. The social costs are just too high if we don’t.

I would argue that some benefits geared to parents are certainly justified, because parenting has a vital social purpose, just as military service does. When people left to fight the Gulf War, I was glad they were doing it. They made a voluntary choice to serve, but I didn’t begrudge their doing it. If someone doesn’t want to have kids, that’s fine, but I’m glad some people want to have kids. Otherwise, who’s going to pay my Social Security, to be my doctor, and to make my products when I’m old?

We need to change the work world more, not less. We have 63 million parents in this country all trying to solve the same problems. They need to be able to take time off or reduce hours without draconian lifetime penalties. Right now, the trade-offs that they make are still very steep.

Fast Company: Nancy, basically, you’re saying that there is discrimination in the workplace against those without children — and that there should be discrimination. It is right to expect those without children to subsidize those with children, in terms both of money and time?

Rankin: It doesn’t have to be as stark a zero-sum game as that. When people with kids take time off from work, people without children gain as well. They can put in longer hours, take tougher assignments, and be rewarded with better positions and higher pay.

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Burkett: It’s true that people who work harder and are more flexible can more easily get ahead. But Nancy didn’t answer the question, so let me. The National Parenting Association demands all sorts of benefits for parents. Yet it maintains that I’m a free rider in society, so I owe society more. But I pay $4,500 a year to educate other people’s children in my local schools, and I’m subsidizing every university in the country. Meanwhile, parents get a $500 tax credit. I’m happy to pay my part, but why is it that if I had a dependent mother, I would get a smaller benefit than if I had a dependent child? Why are companies doing this? The parenting movement is saying that they need special things because what they’re doing is more important than what everyone else is doing.

Fast Company: Nancy would say that the child tax credit is a de facto investment in the future.

Burkett: And taking care of an elderly parent isn’t an investment in the moral fiber of this country? I think it’s disgusting that taking care of your mother is not as socially valuable as any other sort of care. Why would we want to make this issue into a competition? All kinds of care are all incredibly important to a civil society.

Fast Company: Let’s return to the workplace and to the managerial decision that Elinor raised. As a manager, you face a choice: You can support an employee who needs flexibility because of children, or you can support an employee with some other need. How do you wrestle with that?

Burkett: As a manager, when you say yes to one class — parents — you’ve created an impossible situation for yourself. If you want a workplace where people are rewarded for the quality of their work, then you have to make opportunities available to everyone on some rotating basis. The minute you start asking why, you’re saying that one person’s answer is more or less important than another’s. And that’s the way to totally destroy morale.

Rankin: We need to think more imaginatively about how we organize work and workload. If I had three people who want to work four days a week, I could say that now I’ve got money left over to hire someone else to fill the gap. Why do we think so narrowly and imagine that work has to be organized according to the schedule of a 19th-century family? If people want to have part-year or part-week schedules, I think we can open up and reorganize the work. We don’t all have to work from 9 to 5 or from 8 to 7.

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Fast Company: Let’s invite the future managers in the audience to wrestle with this question.

Audience: We have to distinguish between formal and informal solutions. As a manager, if you’re governed by a sense of fairness that your company doesn’t officially allow for, then you have to find your own solutions. I once had an employee with a sick relative in California, and I gave her a four-day week for three months so she could travel there. And you know what? That employee produced 20% more work in those four days than she would have in five, because she felt so guilty. Ultimately, I don’t see how supporting employees with aging parents goes against supporting parenting. Everyone doesn’t take advantage of every benefit.

Burkett: It’s very nice when you come to forum like this and say that benefits should be for everyone. But parents’ groups traditionally demand things that are only for parents. I’m saying that if you’re going to design a workplace or social policy around peoples’ needs, then everyone’s needs have to be recognized as equally valid. The moment you have more benefits just for parents, you pit one group against another.

Audience: As a dad, I’ve never dared to take a day off, because I’d be penalized careerwise. That problem still exists, and it’s not fair.

Burkett: But I thought men said that they were willing to take less money and prestige. You made a decision to parent. Is there a price to being a parent? You bet. Every decision has a cost. That’s your decision, your cost. Why do I have to pay for it?

Audience: Because you’re part of the village.

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Burkett: What if I don’t want to be in your village? What if I want to move to another village? I pay for schools. But you’re asking me to help you instead of a welfare mother who really needs help — and that’s what I resent. This issue is all about helping upper-middle-class parents and not the poor at risk. And I’m supposed to worry about your needing my help? Sorry, not interested. My village first takes care of the infirm and the needy. If two upper-middle-class people decide that they want to have jobs and kids at same time, and choose to do it on one wage, then I owe them nothing.

Fast Company: Let’s imagine that we’re getting together five years from now. Will this conversation or its end point will be any different?

Rankin: Some of the tension that we’re seeing now comes from being in a period of transition. We went from women staying at home to women joining the workforce — and the workplace and other institutions haven’t caught up to that tremendous transformation. Now we’re trying to get them in synch. But in a time of transition, things don’t always work right. We have to figure out the details, because someone has to raise the children. It’s a big village, and it’s in all our interests to do a good job raising the next generation.

Burkett: Five years from now, the conversation will be far worse. The sense of parental entitlement is already out of control and getting worse. The percentage of people who say that they won’t have kids is growing. Unless parents are willing to concede that people without children are contributing members of society, we’ll have all-out warfare in the streets.

Keith H. Hammonds (khammonds@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior editor.

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