Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion about the need to reframe the work/family discussion. As I mentioned in this blog last week, I think it’s time for fathers to make it known that we have family responsibilities, and we don’t expect to be penalized in the workplace for being the dads that our families need and the dads that we want to be. Here’s a brief summary of the work/family discussion with my own commentary and lots of open questions for future thought.
The event started with a lecture by Joan C. Williams, a University of California Hastings School of Law Professor, and author of Reshaping the Work/Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter. Next came a panel discussion that included Eric Berger, a Deloitte consultant and leader for the NY/NJ Deloitte Parent Network, Gary Phelan, an employment lawyer, Daniel Hekman whose responsibilities include work with the U.S. Federal Government’s National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse, and me, representing the NYC Dads Group.
The workplace doesn’t match the worker
Professor Williams started with the premise that today’s workplaces are designed around the ideal workers of the 1960s rather than the ideal workers of the 21st century. Successful people in today’s workplace are usually male, usually have an at-home wife, and are expected to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Professor Williams cites Silicon Valley companies as a prime example– the culture at many of these firms encourages boasting about how busy you are as measured by how many hours you spend at the office. Think of the just out-of-college programmer who is fine with pulling all-nighters and working weekends because s/he has no responsibilities and all his/her friends are at the office. I worked with people like this all over the country, and I probably was one of these guys to some degree. These people aren’t getting more work done, they’re just spending more time at the office, and it certainly doesn’t help that companies compete to find ways to help employees spend time not working while they are at the office — pool tables, ping-pong, video games, beach volleyball, etc. Gotta say, sounds like a fun place to work until you are the one that wants to work a normal eight to ten hour day so you can be with your family. Many of my friends (men and women) that work in finance, law, and consulting have it even worse. These environments measure success by how many hours you’re working as well, but they could actually work 90-100 hour weeks and still not finish their work– not much time left for family, friends, eating, sleeping. Professor Williams contends that mothers are the most discriminated against in this environment, which of course is true, but I would contend that neither mothers nor fathers in these environments are able to fulfill their responsibilities to their families. We need to redesign workplaces for employees that are serious and committed to their work, but also have family responsibilities and other commitments outside the workplace.
Think beyond the elite
Next, Professor Williams pointed out that balancing work and family is not just a problem for the professional class. In fact, the problem is worse for the working class and for the working poor, which account for 80-90% of working Americans. Professionals are able to pay other people to take care of their kids. In many cases, working class families have a patchwork of people that take care of their children, that often includes both parents taking shifts at work and then at home. To make matters worse, these workers are often in jobs with very inflexible work schedules and unpaid leave. If a child gets sick, parents have to negotiate which paycheck they can afford to lose or which job should be put at risk. In the past, and probably still today, women are usually the ones who are punished most in these environments. However, as the economy changes, as women get more educated, as women make more money, men are the ones that will be punished.
Men Under Pressure and the Need for a Cultural Shift
Professor Williams went on to point out that workers are blamed for the imbalance between work and home, rather than blaming workplaces that don’t fit 21st century families. Even in those workplaces that have family-friendly benefits (ie. paid parental leave, job sharing, flex scheduling, etc), employees who use the benefits are marginalized in the workplace. The effect on women has been well documented, but we’re just now seeing evidence that men are feeling tremendous stress as well as they try to balance their own perception of what it means to be a man, their responsibilities as breadwinners in a lagging economy, and their responsibilities at home. Often, the men who do take advantage of family friendly policies, or even admit to having responsibilities at home, are penalized even more than their female counterparts. In my view, the only way we are going to move the discussion forward is to either redefine masculinity to include the full range of men’s responsibilities, or we need to take masculinity out of the discussion all together.
Hostile Family Policy and Re-Engaging the White Working Class
Finally, Professor Williams wondered why does the United States have the most hostile family policies in the world? We’ve had no meaningful family policy passed since the Family Medical Leave Act during the Clinton Administration, and even that was watered down so much that many workers are excluded. Professor Williams says that the shift to the right in American politics has halted progressive policy making for decades. She suggests that the relationship between the Democratic Party and the white working class is broken, and unless and until that relationship is repaired, no new family policy will be passed at the federal level. She is quick to point out that she’s not being racist, but rather recognizing that other racial groups are still part of the Democratic Party. The relationship between the Democratic Party is even more broken among men than women. In my view, it’s time for men to come together to recognize that we have a wide array of responsibilities and we need to understand and demand policy that makes sense for our families.
Like I said, a lot to think about. This work/family discussion really got my mind going, and I’d like to thank Dina Bakst from A Better Balance for asking me to participate. More to come . . .
For another perspective on the work/family discussion event, check out this article from The Glass Hammer.