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?