Inequitable Work-Life Policies in the Workplace

There is a lot of talk these days about “work-family balance.” Promoting more parental leave, flex-time and telecommuting policies for working mothers and fathers does help support working parents’ ability to care for their new babies and children. However, there is a big problem with expanding these kinds of policies. Plain and simple: they are unfair to other employees who are not parents. For a long time now, our society has had the pronatalist assumption that parents and children come first, and this has resulted in inequitable policies in the workplace.

It’s not a new problem. About 10 years ago, Elinor Burkett wrote all about it in Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless. On the ground in the workplace, many non-parent employees resent a culture in which they are expected to “pick up the slack” for their parent colleagues, and how these colleagues can take advantage of leave and flex-time they don’t so easily get.

For flex-time, leave and even telecommuting policies to be fair for all, parenthood has to stop being the central focus behind their development. Here are three ways these kinds of policies could be made more equitable:

1. Eliminate parental leave policies and expand paid time off, or PTO policies instead.

I am not suggesting parents get no leave when they are new moms and dads, just that this time be treated as one kind of PTO employees can take. Expanding PTO policies to include parental leave as one of the reasons employees can choose to take it would treat all employees more fairly. More companies these days understand this. As Bonnie Beirne, director of service operations for Administaff Inc. says, “Employees need to feel they’re treated in a consistent way and they have the same opportunity as other employees to request time off for personal needs.”

2. Offer flex-time regardless of parental status.

Cali Williams Yost, who has advised the United Nations, Microsoft and Johnson & Johnson on flexible work strategies says rather than focusing on who has the “work-life balance higher ground,” flex-time policies should not require asking what the employee is taking the time for, and “Instead, employees should focus on, ‘How am I going to get my job done?'”

3. Offer telecommuting regardless of parenthood status.

Telecommuting is one the rise; a 2008-2009 WorldatWork survey indicated that over 40 percent of U.S. companies said they have a telework program. These programs need to ensure there’s no parental bias – that its availability does not favor parents who want to work from home over employees with no children who want to do the same.

In a nutshell, like discrimination based on race, gender, or sexual preference, time off, flex-time and telework policies need to reflect equal treatment for all employees, no matter who they are or the lifestyle they choose.

Slaughter and Williams say it is “time to change the workplace for everyone.” They are right. But unlike their focus on work-family (“family” meaning having children) balance, “everyone” means more than mothers and fathers.

In the larger picture, reaching true equity means moving beyond pronatalist beliefs that result in policies that are preferential to parents. Ultimately, as The Baby Matrix details, it means stopping the reinforcement of pronatalism at work.

How do you see pronatalism at work in the workplace?

7 thoughts on “Inequitable Work-Life Policies in the Workplace

  1. Back in my working days a few years ago (before I retired at 45), I had a big problem with my company’s rules for being eligible for its group health program. Children and nonworking spouses of covered employees were eligible but employees (such as myself, for about 18 months) who did not work a minimum number of hours per week were not eligible. I even offered to pay 100% of the premiums and was still turned down.

    In a letter I wrote to the head of HR, I wrote that I could gain group health coverage if I were to quit working and marry a coworker instead. This meant that children of covered employees who contributed zero to its bottom line could be covered while some part-time employees who did contribute positively to its bottom line would be denied coverage.

    When you consider that those employees with children were in effect receiving a greater overall compensation package consisting of salary plus the employer-paid portion of health insurance coverage (and it is not taxed, but that is another story) than those without children, the bias against childfree people worsens.

  2. I wonder if anyone has ever been tempted to invent some fictional children as a way to get out of work. I have no doubt some parents use their children as an excuse, so it doesn’t seem far-fetched to just make them up.

    Granted, it would be a hard thing to pull off, but on the other hand, no one who claims to have children has ever been asked to supply documented proof, have they?

    I wouldn’t mind parental leave if it was available for everyone. If I were a supervisor and were sympathetic to my childfree employees, I might just give them a break and give them some time off to spend with their “children,” no questions asked.

  3. P.S. I guarantee I love my cats as much as some parents love their children, so why can’t I take time off work to care for a sick kitty? Blatant species-ist discrimination, that is.

  4. If it’s a question of fairness, let’s not forget one basic fact:

    Having children is a choice parents made.

    If you are a parent, that is the result of dozens of choices you’ve made. You are a parent because you chose to be, so any complications from being a parent stem from your own choices. With choice comes responsibility. At some point parents have to take responsibility for the choices they made.

  5. I worked at a company and one woman I worked with was a single mother. She frequently missed work and left early for her son. One night she told me at 3pm, I had to stay late to finish a project that had been given to her because “Its Chase’s last day of soccer, he needs me there”. I’d had ENOUGH. I had already stayed late twice that week and I had tickets to the opera. I flatly said “No” I’m leaving at 5pm.

    Lots of weeping, calls later our manager came down to say “You have no idea how hard it is to be a single mother! You don’t have children or a husband. Who’s going to care if you don’t get home til 8pm?”

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