Thursday, May 31, 2012

Achieving Work-Life Balance: It Is Easier and Harder Than You Think

Some thoughts on "work-life balance" have been bouncing around in my head, and have finally reached critical mass and coalesced into a rant that is demanding to be shared outside of my head.

The initial seed for this rant was planted by comments someone named Chris Fett made on Scalzi's follow up post to his "Lowest Difficulty Setting" post. You can go on over to the post and search on his name to find all his comments. The best I could tell, he was arguing that women have an advantage over men- perhaps are even oppressing men, it wasn't clear- because women "get" to be both involved parents and members of the workforce. Scalzi closed the thread before I could really clarify how, exactly, men are prevented from doing this, too. But perhaps that is for the best, because his comments had a distressing tendency to make my head explode.

But what has finally brought me to the keyboard is the discussion feMOMhist hosted about whether or not there is too much "mom talk" in academia. A commenter called rented life summed up the concern I have heard many times- both online and in real life- that women without kids (and, one presumes, men with and without kids!) would like the same flexibility in the workplace that working mothers want:

"Generally speaking, I want what the moms want--the flexibility for women to feel comfortable with their choices, to be able to balance work life and home life because that's what we deserve. But I'm often left out of the conversation--either because as a non-mom I can't possibly have the sense to have the right views, or because moms prefer to talk to other moms."

There are several of issues that she brings up in her comment. I'm going to focus only on the workplace flexibility aspect. That is purely for space/focus reasons, and not because the rest of her concerns aren't worthy of discussion. Maybe sometime I'll come back to discuss how surprisingly fraught I've found it to hang out in some "mixed" groups of parents and non-parents- but not tonight.

Now, I am far, far, FAR more sympathetic to the concerns rented life has raised than I am to Chris Fett's strange views. In fact, I agree with her. I argued in my Work-Life Balance for Everyone Manifesto that everyone deserves a life outside of work. "Work-life balance"should not be a working mother's issue, or even a working parent's issue. I think we do ourselves a disservice when we frame it like that, because it subtly supports the insidious stereotype that working mothers are somehow lesser employees. I think we should not only include women like rented life in our discussions about work-life balance, we should actively encourage their participation, and the participation of men.

But. There is a thread in common between Chris Fett's belief that women "get" to have some sort of work-life balance that men don't and some of the comments from non-parents who feel they don't "get" the same flexibility at work that parents do. (Which, I want to be clear, is not what rented life said- her comment just reminded me of many others I've heard. It was the catalyst for this rant, but not the underlying cause.) The thread that links these two sets of comments, at least in my mind, is the idea that working mothers are being "given" concessions that are unavailable to other people. And that just isn't true, at least not in my experience as a worker and as a boss.

Here is how I view the issue of workplace flexibility as a boss: I take people at their word about the hours they can work. I listen to what they tell me matters to them, and the boundaries they set between work and home, and I adjust my plans accordingly.

Obviously, I try to be fair without needing people to come talk to me and ask for accommodations. But what is fair? To me, it isn't a strict tit-for-tat sort of exchange. It is attempting to give each person what he or she needs and wants, and trying to make sure that when someone has to compromise on that, it isn't always the same someone.  For one person, an 8 a.m. teleconference with our vendor in France is absolutely no problem, since he's in the office at that time anyway. For someone else, being in the office at that time more than doubles the time spent on his commute. Conversely, staying late might be a disaster for the first guy because he needs to take his son to football practice, but is no problem at all for the other guy, who prefers to keep a late schedule, anyway, to avoid traffic. A weekend upgrade might be no problem for one person this weekend- annoying, because it is never fun to work on the weekend, but nothing a little comp time can't fix. For someone else, it might mean missing the premier to that big summer movie he's been looking forward to for months, and which he planned to attend (in costume!) with a large group of his friends.

As a line manager and as a project manager, my job is to take in all of this information, mix in the promises we've made to our customers and other business-related concerns, and come up with a plan for getting our goals accomplished. As I said, this is my job, and I don't mind doing it. But I can't do it properly without all the information. The workplace is no place to do the equivalent of "if he loved me, he would just know." I have 10-15 people to think about. Maybe I'll "just know" your needs, maybe I won't. To be honest, I no longer aim for that level of clairvoyance. I just aim to only have to be told of a need once.

From the boss' standpoint, I'd far rather you come talk to me about something you think is unfair rather than seething silently and then quitting abruptly in the middle of a push towards a big release. Talk to me. Tell me your concerns and define your boundaries. You get bonus points if you come to me willing to help me find a solution, by telling me, for instance, that you can take that early teleconference, but since it will make you miss your morning yoga class, you'd like to sneak out for an hour at 2 p.m. for a different class.

I know that I am just one boss, and that there are other bosses out there who aren't so enlightened. But I have also never worked for a boss who didn't appreciate this sort of honesty. I have worked for 11 bosses since finishing my PhD (I just counted). I have worked for micromanagers and bosses so hands off that I could go weeks without seeing them. I have worked for other PhD scientists and for non-scientists whose education stopped at the bachelor's level. I have worked for men and women (although mostly men). I have worked for infamous workaholics and bosses who espoused the virtues of daily meditation. Every single one of them respected the boundaries I set, and no one ever made me feel like a schedule concern I raised was a problem.

As a worker, I have always had boundaries between my work life and my home life. They have certainly become more firmly defined now that I have kids, but workplace arrangements that accommodate these boundaries weren't just granted to me automatically when I came back from maternity leave. No one came up to me during my first week back and said that now that I was a mother, I could have more flexibility at work. In general, I have either asked for the arrangements I wanted or simply taken them, assuming that I could apologize later if needed.

The only workplace flexibility that I use that was just given to me is the ability to work from home, in the form of either a laptop or the ability to connect to my work computer via VPN, and this has been granted equally to everyone at every job I have ever held.

The only accommodation I received that is not available to people without kids was the partially paid disability and family leave that I took after the birth of each baby- and if you won't grant that new mothers should have some protected time off to recover from the birth, and that new parents should have some time to adjust to the new life for which they are responsible, well, then we probably don't have enough common ground to justify having a conversation on the topic of work-life balance. You should just click away now, leaving a nasty comment first if you must.

Here are the other "special" accommodations I have used since becoming a mother, and how I came to have them:

When I came back from my first maternity leave, I worked a 35 hour work week for several months. I got this because I asked my boss for it. It was granted contingent upon me keeping my program managers happy despite the reduced hours. And my pay was reduced accordingly, of course.

I have shifted my schedule. I work from approximately 8:15 to 4:30, and I usually take only a very short lunch break (maybe 10-15 minutes of aimless web surfing while I eat). I got this because I told my boss that  this is the schedule I work. People are generally understanding, but I have to police the "early" leaving time myself, by declining invitations for later meetings and just getting up and leaving meetings that run late. And yes, I have done that, even when the meeting involves quite senior people. Now, some jobs have less flexible schedules than mine, but within the confines of the job requirements, this schedule flexibility is not contingent on my status as a mother.

When I took on an expanded role at my previous company, it required reporting to a board member who is well known in the industry for working insanely long hours and expecting similar work commitments from people who work with him. Before I accepted the role, I had a frank talk with him about my hours and the circumstances under which I would work "extra" hours. I kept my regular schedule, and my usual habit of only working extra hours as the work truly required it.

I occasionally run errands at lunch and I sometimes have to leave early to take the kids to the doctor, etc. When I do this, I catch up on work at home. As I mentioned above, the ability to work from home has just been a given at my jobs. The flexibility in hours is something I just take.

I may be forgetting something, but I think the general point is clear: the flexibility I have I either negotiated for or just took. There is absolutely nothing stopping anyone else from doing the same, whether they have kids or not. However, there are career risks associated with each accommodation. What if people viewed me as a less desirable project member when I had the reduced schedule? What if people think I am not a committed employee because I leave "early" (even though I also come in early)? Did my frank discussion of my hours make me seem more expendable when it was time for lay offs at my old company? What if people think I am slacking off because I leave for my kids' doctors appointments?

I have no evidence that any of this flexibility has had any negative impact on my career, but there is no way to know for certain. I suspect that I have not paid much, if any, penalty, for demanding flexibility because I also demand a high level of productivity from myself, and know how to get it in a "regular" work week. It probably helps that I figured that out before I had kids, and therefore had a reputation as a fairly productive person who "only" works a 40-45 work week before any stereotypes about working mothers came into play. I am also willing to give as much flexibility back to my job as I can without overstepping any of the boundaries I've set for myself- I will stay past 4:30 on occasion, particularly if I know about the need ahead of time. I will work on weekends when necessary. I suspect I have also just been lucky.

However, none of that really matters- my reasons for wanting the flexibility are important enough to me to justify the career risks that attaining that flexibility entailed. If you want the same flexibility, you can have it, kids or no, male or female. But you will also face the same risks. I have never seen any evidence that working mothers face fewer risks for insisting on workplace flexibility. Rather the opposite, in fact- there are studies showing that mothers pay a penalty in the workplace even when their work performance is the same as that of non-mothers.

Do I think that it is right that requesting and/or taking reasonable amounts of workplace flexibility to enable "work-life balance" involves taking a risk with your career? Not at all. As I said in my comment on feMOMhist's post:

"What I really want is for everyone to come together and work together to fix our work culture, which glorifies insane face time hours over productivity, even while time tracking studies consistently show very few people actually WORK that many hours, even if they are in the office. I want us to stop fighting parent vs. non-parent and just try to make the culture better."

I truly think that this idea that parents are somehow "getting" extra flexibility in the workplace stands in the way of that goal. If you don't have kids, and you think your colleagues with kids are getting more flexibility than you, stop and ask yourself whether you have made your wishes known. And then look carefully at the parents' arrangements, and ask yourself if you are willing to take the career risks those arrangements entail.  "Work-life balance" doesn't just happen for parents. It is something we have to actively pursue. The good news, though, is that the methods required for pursuing it are fairly simple: figure out what you want and ask for it (or take it). 

To my fellow working mothers, who might justifiably feel a little embattled on this issue, since we have been fighting for workplace flexibility that benefits everyone while also suffering from unfair stereotypes about our work ethic, I say: try to let that all go. If you are not embracing the efforts of your child-free colleagues to secure work-life balance, start doing so now. Include them in the conversations and don't dismiss their concerns because they are different from yours. You may think that your day care pick up is more important than a yoga class, but you don't really know. There was a time in my life (before kids, as it happens) when my weekly yoga class was all that kept my repetitive strain injury at bay. It was a crucial part of my plan to ensure that I could stay in my career. Trying to rank reasons for needing workplace flexibility is a game we all lose. Besides, the more that fathers and child-free people insist on flexibility, the less the stigma that will attach to it, the more normal it will seem, and the better we will all be.

To everyone else, I say: join us in this fight for a better workplace culture! Come on in, the water's- uh, well, the water is full of submerged hazards. But maybe if we all work together we can clear some of those out of the way.

57 comments:

  1. Great Post.

    I happen to work for myself, from home, but I still agree with all your arguments about Work/Life balance.

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  2. paola3:24 AM

    I haven't commented much on this topic seeing I haven't worked close to full time since my son was born 7.5 years ago. Since then I have always done 'some' work, mainly becasue I had my MIL help out with babysitting when I wokrked. Recently since we moved to the UK, it has been more difficult seeing I have no one to fall back on when the kids are sick. That and the fact that the kids are never at school for more than 6 weeks without a week or two off for holidays. So far my workplace has been very understanding, but I will be asking for 6 weeks off for the summer holidays mid July and I worry that I might actually be pushing my luck a bit.

    I agree with everything you have said, but there are some places where the flexibility you mention will never exist. Italy is one of those places. I know of so many women that have been asked to sign contracts stipulating that they 'agree' to leave the company if they get pregnant. It was recently exposed that Italy's biggest national newspaper wrote this into some of their female worker's contracts. There is also the issue of wokring part-time, which is a privelage of very few workers. If you do manage to get a part-time contract, there are so many rules governing the structure of the contract that any flexibility is thrown out the window. And the contract has to be renewed yearly so if you manage to work part-time in 2012, it doesn't mean you will in 2013.

    Things are unlikely to improve shortly with the economic crisis that has brought Itlay to its knees. The series of earthquakes that have hit here recently won't make it easier either.

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    1. I know many women in Italy who were on long-term maternity leave while having kids and then returned to full-time work. They felt sorry for me because I had to go back to work so soon! I don't know actual stats though. I think part-time work is hard to find, that's for sure (here and there!)

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    2. Italy does have very good maternity leave conditions. 2 months pre- birth, 3 months post- birth, paid at either 80 or 100%. Then another 6 months paid at 50%. Leave without pay till the child is 3 years old. This goes for free,ance workers like myself as maternity pay is actually paid by a govt body and no the employer ( otherwise ou wouldn't have a hope in hell of getting anything). Troubles come afterwards when you want to go back to work, not when you are on leave.

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  3. Excellent post, as always.

    My husband actually tends to do the sick days etc. because he works a lot on weekends, so when there is a need during the week he is less at risk because he has _visibly_ shown up after hours. Whereas in my job, even if I do put the hours in it's not face time and so the _perception_ is that I wasn't there. But if I do have to do it, I lose...and that is the risk I take.

    I think I've said this before but my then-4-yr-old son's appendix burst 12 hours before I was to present to senior management, a presentation that might well have resulted in a big promotion. As we only had one child, technically my husband could have stayed with him and I could have done the presentation. But there are times that as a parent if your entire livelihood is not at risk I think you have to show up, and when your preschooler is about to come out of anaesthesia after a very scary experience is one of them.

    I had prepped a colleague "just in case" -- this is one of the tricks, by the way, work as ahead and as transparently as possible -- and so I turned my PowerPoint over. She got the promotion and I am totally satisfied with my ethical choice.

    But it wasn't like it was penalty-free because I'm a mother.

    I leave on time too and that does impact on my particular career. I have a boss who totally gets it, but I am also not a star. I have been and I will be again but not right now.

    Something that is happening now is that my aging parents are starting to need care too, and that's a whole other balancing act. Most of us have had parents :) so...

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    1. Joanna9:20 AM

      "but I am also not a star" - completely get that!

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    2. It's hard to come to that realization that I can't be a star with other major outside work priorities, but once I finally did, I'm so much happier :)

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  4. I think I mentioned this on Femomhist's post or it might have been in the comment that got eaten...

    But when I started work (without child), I answered unreasonable requests with, "Yes, but I will need X, Y, and Z to compensate" and I usually got X and Y. I stopped getting unreasonable requests.

    There are women in my department both with and without children who always accept unreasonable requests. So they always get unreasonable requests. And their research suffers or their health suffers or their time with their families evaporates. Who benefits? Well, I still accept reasonable requests, but there are gentlemen in the department who do not, and not because they have families, as their families are all grown up. And they don't have to, because there are junior women willing to take that hit.

    #2 on our blog has a rant ready to go next week about how accepting unreasonable requests from men has negative spillovers from the rest of us, and I think to some extent that's true. Still, the men in the department value my time more than they value my sacrificial colleagues' time because I value it. I *must* be doing something important.

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    1. I don't think it's just men making unreasonable requests that hurts - I think the issue is accepting those requests from work, period. I have a female coworker with a female boss who is complaining that she works so many extra hours, never sees her baby, etc etc and I don't understand why she just isn't assertive about it. Part of it is cultural, but the other part is fear. I think one has to let go of that fear to be happy at work.

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    2. I'm sure that's true, but in general women professors are less likely to make unreasonable requests and more likely to "take one for the team" to the detriment of all the other women in the department. Ask any academic administrative assistant and you will get horror tales about senior male professors who somehow think that administrative assistant = personal assistant including things like picking up dry cleaning (faxing personal car purchase orders, picking up children from school, doing faculty work-room laundry, addressing personal Christmas cards, etc.). Women professors are also seen as the ones who should be nurturing undergrads and doing other sorts of service work simply because they're women.

      So there's two things going on-- one is the cultural expectation that women do excessive service work because they're the ones somehow equipped for that, and when women allow themselves to be doormats, that hurts all the other women in the department. (That's what #2 is addressing next Tuesday I think.) Then there's the exceptionalism idea wherein if a woman refuses service *because her research is too important* the senior folk will believe that her research is too important and look down even more on the women who are killing themselves with service because obviously if their research were important they'd learn how to say no too.

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    3. One of my 'favorite' experiences when I worked as a secretary was my boss asking me to help him find a dog...for his mistress. :-P

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    4. My husband is one who often accepts unreasonable requests. He's consciously trying to avoid it these days, but the need for work/life balance isn't just for working mothers.

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    5. @Calee... nobody said it was. However, in academia, you will generally not see older gentlemen killing themselves with service. And younger gentlemen are less likely to be asked to (at least not if there's a woman around... and if there's not a woman around then they hire another administrative assistant to take on the service which is what most places should do anyway, but why buy another cow when you can get the milk for free?). Academic men obviously have more important things to do with their time.

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  5. p.s. I'm not 100% sure, but I believe that form of discrimination has been illegal in Italy since 2006 (under an EU Framework directive from 2000). Of course, lots of things have been illegal in Spain for longer than that, but they're never enforced, so perhaps Italy has the same attitudes toward the protection laws forced on them by the EU.

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    1. And it is worth pointing out that being a mother is not a "protected class" in most states, meaning that it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of membership in that class. I vaguely remember a discrimination case somewhere (maybe Pennsylvania) that ended up hinging on this fact. Pregnant workers are often a protected class, but mother are not.

      Sadly, despite the fact that I have had the mandatory anti-discrimination training rather recently, I can't remember whether or not mothers are a protected class in CA. I don't think we are. Of course, women are, so you could argue that any treatment doled out to mothers that is not doled out to fathers is discriminatory. I wonder if anyone has ever made that argument in court?

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    2. If mothers are discriminated against and fathers are not, then that falls under the federal Civil Rights Act (CRA) under gender discrimination. Yes, that argument has been made (and succeeded) in court.

      Pregnant women are protected at the federal level as well under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act which is an amendment to the CRA.

      Parents have some protections under the FMLA (if the reason for the problem is a sick child). Parental status is a pretty common state anti-discrimination law, and California has pretty much all the state anti-discrimination laws. (I think they even have smokers as a protected class.)

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  6. I agree with you completely. The "mothers get extra stuff" rhetoric is particularly distressing to me, because all the available research indicates the myriad of ways women are professionally penalized for having children (as men are not), and so to have additional pressure put on us by the child-free/men is really frustrating. I am 100% on board with the idea of balance for everyone and an end to America's completely insane and unproductive view of work/being a worker, and I agree that we cannot and should not make judgments about what people are doing with the "life" portion of their balance (as in your example of a yoga class). On the other hand, being a parent, especially a single parent, is a bit like having a chronic illness - you don't have choices about what you can and can not do, you have "choices". There have been times when I've been faced with a situation where it was like, No I cannot take that class schedule and if you tried to make I might have to quit. Sometimes people are like, just get a sitter! And I want to throw myself off a cliff, because wouldn't it be awesome if it were that easy! It took me six weeks of constant searching to find after care for my kids (they aren't in daycare anymore, which makes problems for the late afternoon). Like @Shandra's child's surgery - there are some aspects to being a caregiver that are totally non-negotiable, because a child is a human being to whom one has a sacred responsibility, not a hobby or a pet. The suggestion that mothers "get things" in a way detrimental to others to me is just another signal of the hostility and contempt that we have in our culture toward caregiving, and mothers and women in particular. The idea that treating people like human beings with dignity and respect is "special treatment" makes me livid.

    I wish you were my boss, Cloud! I work in a rigid and hierarchical system in which everything is determined by seniority and the vast majority of people in positions of authority are men (academia). I have some flexibility because my days are basically my own, but within the institutional structure, as an untenured person, I can't leave a meeting early or refuse to attend because it's in the late afternoon/evening. Academics do so much in the "off hours" it causes endless stress and juggling.

    Did you guys ever see that made for TV movie about how the FMLA came into being? A guy whose daughter had cancer was fired for, you know, needing to take care of her, and then whoops! he lost his (and her) health insurance when he was fired. We haven't advanced much beyond this, as a society.

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    1. I am by no means a perfect boss, but I do look out for my employees' access to flexibility and things like that.

      From the outside, academia seems like a very old-fashioned environment, and the tenure system seems to exacerbate that- giving tenured people heaps of flexibility and untenured people heaps of risk if they try to also have flexibility. But that is just an impression from the outside.

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  7. paola6:12 AM

    Of course it is too in Italy otherwise it wouldn't have made front pages, but it is done in such a way that it looks like the women are happy to agree to such conditions.

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  8. Another really irritating thing... I didn't get any leave with my first kid. Was not covered by FMLA or state law. Could not afford unpaid leave. And they wouldn't have been able to find anyone to cover my classes that semester anyway. I was back in the classroom after 3 weeks. It would have been two (during winter break) but there was a freak snowstorm that shut the school down an additional week.

    I found out recently that at my tenure discussions everyone assumed I'd had that semester off! Because *of course* women with babies get maternity leave, even if they actually don't get it in many many places. If I'm going to be getting the assumptions that I'm getting something special for having a baby, I sure would like to actually get that something special. (Luckily things have changed in the past 5 years and I am getting a teaching reduction this time around. Of course, I also went into the meeting requesting exactly that.)

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    1. N&M: I have to admit, that's one situation where I would have quit my job (if I'd been expected to go back after two/three weeks - I couldn't even sit up straight after two-three weeks, let alone take over my job). I'm not saying that's the right thing, or what you should have done (obviously!) only that such policies, or non-policies, force many women into opting out, just as clearly as Italy's contractual "agreements". I got a quarter of unpaid leave, and then started a new job, which I negotiated to start later, so in all I had seven months off of work after #1 was born. OTOH, it was 100% unpaid, which was a fairly significant financial loss for the family. (And it was over eight months of no pay, since I had to start the leave before the baby was born.) And I should note, it's not as though I was *not working* during that period. I started back to work part time after three months, which meant I was working for no compensation, plus paying for the sitter.

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    2. My mother had to pay her own substitute for week 2 (my sister and I both managed to be born during spring break) for me. With my sister, the university (a progressive one on a coast) at least covered her substitute.

      Progress?

      It's still pretty shocking how far there still is to go. And I'm not even saying that women need to be paid for work they're not doing-- that's going to have negative consequences on employers wanting to hire women or pay them fair salaries (more likely they'll be willing to accept lower salaries), unless the gov't covers some of that pay... but a little flexibility and even unpaid leave can help. And seriously, if a woman isn't getting the benefit, people shouldn't just assume that she is.

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    3. Yes, yes, yes. The big problem (IMO) is how many of these things - health care, family leave - is a burden placed on the employer, which should not be and cannot be financially responsible for these things. Enter the government!

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    4. Erin, I completely agree. However, the last time I made a comment very similar to yours somewhere, people were quick to (rightly) point out that the US government does not want to incentivize childbearing and childrearing because (I suppose) the birthrate is fine. If we were Germany or another country in Western Europe where the population is drastically aging, we may be finding ourselves with much more generous, government-regulated policies for parents...

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    5. @GMP - Hmm. Were the people who responded to you basically like, so that's okay because we don't want to encourage women to have more kids? With the overpopulation? (Or it could be a partial explanation, which I would buy - there's no pressure on the gov't to do anything to make women's lives easier. Thanks, DNC!) But if it's the former (that's okay then), I call utter bullsh*t on that whole line of thought. I can see why countries use incentives with low birthrates. But that doesn't mean women (and parents and caregivers) in this country don't deserve actual, you know, support. We also don't have decent health care or subsidized child care or decent disability aid, etc. There reasons why almost every other country in the entire world has implemented some paid leave for maternity but not the US, and it has something to do with our collective disdain for social programs/community-building and belief that if you have a kid, that's your "choice" and your problem. That's part of the reason why there's such pushback when mothers ask for accommodations of whatever stripe - suddenly now we're oppressing other people by burdening them with our choices. It's not possible for me to feel more strongly against that way of thinking. (I don't mean to imply that you think that way, I'm just ranting.)

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    6. Erin, I completely agree with you. Especially about the pushback against mothers because kids are personal choices and a personal problem bullshit, and how mothers are oppressing others with our own personal choices (like the society would actually be able to keep on if no one had kids any more).

      I have gotten into trouble more than once on the intertubes for suggesting that even people who hate kids get to benefit from other people having them...

      Anyway, I'm totally with you, but this topic pisses me off so much I'd better shut up now.

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    7. @GMP- have you run across the people who actually think no one should have kids and society should just die out? I can't help but wonder what their parents think when they hear that....

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    8. I totally feel your pain about the 3 weeks off thing. With my first child, I had 5 weeks. Second child, 3 weeks--although I was "entitled" to 8, I was the first woman at my firm ever to try to take a maternity leave, and of course, they "needed" me for a very important trial that didn't even go. Third child, I was working IN THE DELIVERY ROOM. Same thing with the fourth. Fifth and final, I was working within about 3 1/2 weeks.

      Obviously I was pushed out of the "regular" practice of law long ago (while pregnant with #3, to be exact; the whole story is pretty hair-raising)--"freelancing" (or as we call it in the law, being a "contract" lawyer, which basically means that I write briefs for other lawyers) is incredibly precarious and there really is no possibility of getting a break.

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  9. I don't have kids, and I have set very clear limits on how much I'll work. I've even gotten in arguments with my boss about it. He thinks I have plenty of spare time to be putting in extra hours, and he has an expectation that I should make my job a 60-80 hr/wk job. I have no doubt the fact that I've set my boundaries has hurt my future in my company. But at the same time, they aren't going to fire me because I am productive during the hours I do work, I am flexible and will work nights and weekends when absolutely necessary, and I do my job well. I make a decent salary and have a lifestyle I love, and I know (especially from posts like yours) that there are enlightened bosses out there, so even if my future at this company is not particularly bright, I don't feel like MY future is or will be impaired by this particular disagreement with my boss.

    In short, I agree with you. If you want work-life balance, you have to be aware of the potential costs and make it happen yourself.

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    1. Amen to this. I think enough people (child-free or otherwise) don't let go of the fear of what *might* happen if they just say no. In most cases, nothing because it is very hard (and dumb) for the company to replace a productive person.

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    2. Have you pointed him to the studies that show that productivity peaks at about 40 hours? Or maybe you can do that as you leave....

      Personally, I think that working "extended" hours in tech jobs is a terrible idea. I have never worked with anyone who didn't start making mistakes as the hours crept up past 50 or so per week. Some of those mistakes can put you further behind on your project. So, as a project manager, I consider long hours a risk to the project.

      I should write a post on this sometime, because I think my PM view on the topic is one reason why I don't glorify long hours. To me, it signifies failure, not dedication. I'll add that post to the queue....

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  10. I completely agree with your post.

    I know it's been said before, but one of the reasons it may *seem* that parents (specifically mothers) get more flexibility is because a child is something you feel much more strongly about than, say, getting to a spin class.

    If my son is sick, and DH is unavailable, I don't have another choice - I have to go pick him up from daycare and spend the day with him. Same with picking him up by a certain time for daycare (everyone knows I leave at 4:30, or I'll have to pay a late fee), or I can only attend a certain number of conferences.

    When I was single and/or childless, I had other important things in my life. But, in my mind, I didn't feel they were as important as work, and sometimes my personal life suffered. For example, I might plan to go to a particular gym class, but if I meeting got booked at the same time, I'd put off the class.

    Now though, I'm much more protective of ALL my out-of-work interests. If I'm going to a specific gym class, then I'll say I'm unavailable at that time. I think having a child not only makes me confident with standing up for my time with him, but also my time in general.

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    1. Joanna9:27 AM

      regarding the daycare pickup and late fee. do you ever feel irritated that you have to come up with a reason to get home to see your son? I mean, I also have a daycare pickup and late fee. But, even if I didn't and had a mother in law watching my daugther instead, I would still want to go home and spend time with her every night. Most of my co-workers just don't get that part.

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    2. I think having a child not only makes me confident with standing up for my time with him, but also my time in general.

      Great point! This happened to me too. There is so little time for anything but work and childcare in my life, that I find I am now fiercely protective of the precious little time I managed to carve out for me.

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  11. I love this post! I haven't read all of the comments yet - will do that later. But, really wanted to chime in. First of all, as a newish (18 months) mother, I can't agree more with wanting everyone I work with, parent or no, to have the flexibility they want. If they can do it, so can I. Whether you want to go home to see your dog, plant your garden, or train for the iron man (we have a very diverse group), or just beat traffic, I am all for it, and agree that it only benefits me when I have to leave early to get to daycare and (gasp) enjoy spending time with my child.

    But, what I have found for myself, is that, before kids I enjoyed having my work be my main focus in life. I liked coming in early and staying late, taking weekend phone calls, and dealing with emergencies. All of that made me feel important, and I really thrived off of it. The biggest adjustment for me when I had my daugther, was that I no longer cared. I work for financial reasons, and would like to cut my hours more (I have gone from 60 hour weeks to 40 hours weeks, but it's still too much for me).

    Even though I changed jobs to a more flexible office, I still do feel a lot of pressure to show "face time". My ideal would be to work 30 hours a week, and have one of those days at home. I am completely willing to sacrifice some money and advancement to get that. The problem is, many professional jobs are all or nothing. It's very difficult to get that perfect situation. And, when you are reliant on a paycheck and/or health benefits, it's scary to risk that. Those financial items are things that my family needs desperately. But, I also know that my daugther needs me being with her, as I am the only one who is her mommy.

    Therefore, when she is sick, or needs to get scary shots, I do take time off to go with her. It is risky. There are some weeks where it feels like every week there is one day where she is sick (or I am sick!!). My husband plays a big role, but sometimes there is no one like mommy, and besides that, I find that there are some gender differences (at least in my family) where it is more likely that I am the one who WANTS to be there with her when she is sick.

    Anyway, now I think I am rambling. I will try to sum up. One is that some people may be like me, who deep down enjoy working overtime and weekends, even if they complain. Those people, who may or may not be parents, cannot relate to others wanting to work less or flexible hours (that is how I was - I looked down on others - shameful I know). Those people will always make it difficult on us, who have priorities outside of work, because they believe work should come first. As I said, I have been that person, and since becoming a parent, I worked for those people (and have since left that job).

    Face time is still #1 in many boss's minds, and that will be the hardest thing to change. As you said, I am not always working, but I am putting in the required 40 hours of facetime. I am sure I could do the same amount of work in 30 hours.

    But number one to me, is that while this is everyone's issue, I think the issue can become more paramount when one becomes a parent. As I said, I didn't care about flexibility until my daughter was born. I was unprepared for how much my priorities would shift. So, that is why I think it often is a parent issue. Not only that, but I also think there is in many circumstances a gender difference where mothers feel this more, as is true in my case and many of my friends as well. Which is not to say my husband doesn't carry his weight - he is very much an equal partner. But just that he doesn't feel it in the same way that I do.

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    1. I totally get this - I was the same way. Before I found a hobby I LOVED, I spent all my free time working and was rewarded accordingly. And my industry encourages this kind of "devotion" to one's job.

      So I think I will always have to deal with those "haters" who just don't get WHY *anyone* would want flexibility, kids or otherwise, because I was one of those people too ;)

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    2. FWIW, I did NOT spend all of my free time working before I had kids. I have just never been a "work really long hours" sort of person. And I still feel like I was rewarded quite well. I think this is a case where we can never really know to what extent the long hours contributed to the rewards, because you can't do the proper control.

      This may be one reason that I don't feel too stressed by work-life issues now. I have NEVER devoted all of my energies to my job, so it doesn't feel like motherhood has changed that. What has changed is the amount of time I have for other things in my life. So maybe you could say I have a "life-life balance" problem!

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    3. @Cloud - I feel like I've done the control - my promotion velocity is pretty much nonexistent since I started working part-time in 2006. When I went back to full time+ in 2008, I immediately got a huge out-of-cycle bonus that's only given to the top 1%.

      Maybe it's the "stigma" of working part-time vs. full time, but I'm certain that at my company, anyway, just putting in 40 hours wouldn't get me those kind of rewards (it's on a curve). Certainly 30 hours didn't do it.

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    4. I think you've done as fair a comparison of "extra full time" and part time as can be done- but that isn't the same as comparing "extra full time" with being a full time employee who works 40 hours. And I haven't done it either, since I've never been the type to do the extra long hours.

      As a 40-45 hour/week person (who increases to 50+ hours for short bursts to finish projects, etc), I have twice in my career received raises of 20% or more. I have gotten hefty bonuses, including a stock grant at one company that would have been worth roughly $30k if I'd stayed at the company long enough for all of it to vest. I've gotten promotions, and new responsibilities. So, from where I sit, I feel like I've had a fairly successful career. But I have no way of knowing if I would be more successful if I put in more face time.

      It doesn't surprise me that you're finding that being part time is hurting your promotions. I left the company where I had the 35 hour work week before I could see what it would do to my career path there, but I suspect it would have stalled me out at the level I was at unless I'd happened to land with a particularly open-minded division manager. If I were going to go part time, I think I'd go out as an independent contractor, because it seems to me that people are less judgmental that way, possibly because they never really know how many hours you are working- just how many hours you are working for them! But of course, that means giving up benefits.

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    5. I think it probably varies by company size and culture, whether you are well-rewarded for "only" working 40 hours. Where my hubby was, that most definitely would not have cut it. There are probably teams at my company where it could work, but I've not been on them. The consistent message has always been "it's not enough to just do your job" and you always have to do "extra".

      So you can do your job in 40 hours, no problem, but the "extra" stuff has to be done after that. otherwise you're not actually getting your job done. It's definitely a company culture problem, but it's so ingrained. What I like and what keeps me doing part-time is the freedom from "extra".

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    6. I think it depends on your field too. In mine (media) a lot happens outside of working hours, and there's still an expectation that you show up for the working hours. People who show up to everything tend to have the most to write about. There is a law of diminishing return in there somewhere - you need the sleep and perspective to distinguish good from great from lousy - but being in the fray is a big part of the job.

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    7. Joanna7:50 AM

      (this is me - didn't mean to post as unknown before)

      I agree that it depends on the company (not as much the industry, because there are always good companies/managers in every industry, just sometimes harder to seek out). At my last firm (CPA firm), parents, including me, were told that 40 hours per week was not enough, and that we would have to work 60 hours per week during busy season (approx 5 months per year, but sometimes more if you got on bad audits or fiscal year end tax returns). I did want to stay there, but knew that I needed to see my daugther every day.

      I changed jobs to a different type of firm that runs very differently. I am happy that I can get my work done in 40 hours, but do wish that I was working 30 hours instead. I think it's hard to find valuable part-time work. There is one mom here who works 2 days per week, one from home, and she is not very respected by the rest of the team. It makes me very sad.

      Anyway, with the job change and reduced hours, I actually am making more money for less work, and I have more responsibility. So, I do think it's possible to find better balance if you look around. However, it's not easy, as I still do believe most managers are older, and are simply behind the times in many ways. They still see facetime as the biggest factor. And still, I would like to reduce my facetime, but anything less than 40 hours is frowned upon even where I am now.

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  12. I have a colleague who requests that every weekly meeting that he has to be a part of happen on Wednesday. "He likes to take long weekends." I have no idea how serious he is about this, but he is usually willing to put aside his desire for my desire to spend the evening with my kid, so we avoid the Wednesday 5-6 time slot. However, working with him is teaching me a lesson in being assertive. His preference may be seen as extreme, but if he doesn't make the request, he'll never get it. As an employee, I often forget that fact.

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    1. Wow. That is pretty extreme! And I have to say, is the sort of thing that would NEVER fly in industry, for better or for worse.

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  13. So in my experience, one of the conflict points with parents and others wanting flexibility is that people want to be not working at different times. Let's say things are incredibly hectic and people are having to put in 12-hour days. The parents want to work 8-6 and then 9-11 by phone so they can do kid drop off and then have the evenings off for family. The young single person on the team wants to work maybe 8-8, so he can then meet his friends. At 10pm, he maybe wants to be nicely buzzed in a bar somewhere. But that request is probably going to be less privileged than the kid-time one. Probably for obvious reasons...but you can see why he'd then feel miffed.

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    1. That's a good point, but I think this conflict can be managed. In my career, I have never had anyone try to schedule meetings after 6, and rarely after 5. Conversely, I'll never schedule before 9 unless I confirm that it isn't a problem for the other people attending. The "core work hours" of 9-4 are when we have meetings and collaborate. The hours we work outside that time are usually for catching up on the "solo" work.

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  14. Amen. "The workplace is no place to do the equivalent of "if he loved me, he would just know." And along with "the workplace" let's add that neither is marriage, friendship, nor life.

    And can I just say that face time is so, so shitty. Face time and childcare issues were my 2 biggest stumbling blocks when I used to work for other people. Ugh.

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  15. Thanks for all the great comments,everyone! I've been in an all day meeting, and only have a few minutes before I head out for our day care's annual ice cream social... so I don't have time to respond to everyone. But I'll definitely come back later and respond, because there are lots of good points in here.

    For now, I'll just clarify that my partially paid disability/FMLA were both insurance-type schemes. In CA, both employees and employers pay in, and then employees can access the benefits when a qualifying event occurs. I also have private disability insurance, which augmented the disability portion of the pay.

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  16. All great points. It is a battle that won't be won until everyone sees the benefit, especially men. I have some hope that the younger generations will see the value of flexibility, especially because our tied-to-the-desk mentality was created long before emails, faxes or smartphones or VPN. I wish Cloud was my boss, too. As i mentioned on my blog, not everyone has the clout at work to gain that flexibility nor understanding bosses. (and while I wouldn't call myself a star employee, I generally fall into the valued employee spectrum..)

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    1. I agree, flexibility is easier to "take" as you climb the ladder. But I'd also add, from the boss' point of view, that a lot of employees have more power than they realize, particularly if they have specialized skills. I recently filled a very junior position in my group. It took me six full months to find a good candidate. For the more senior positions, I think I could expect to look for up to a year. And even if it were easier to replace my employees, the hiring process is a giant PITA, and eats up time I'd rather spend on other work. So an employee would have to do something pretty egregious to get fired! And there is a process I'd have to follow, which would involve at least one warning. I think that is pretty common.

      Of course, that doesn't address the concerns about not getting promotions. I think that is the bigger risk.

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    2. I've hired several contractors for very junior work, and it's very difficult to find someone decent, so when we did we tried to do as much as we could to keep them around :) So definitely full time employees who are doing a good job have a lot more bargaining power than they think!

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    3. Yes I do think my dislike for working more than 40 hours per week except on rare occasions have limited my growth careerwise but I stand my that even without kids.

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  17. I'm too cynical to believe we'll ever really fix American work culture. A lot of people believe the workaholicness (I know, not a real word) is why America is the origin of so many great companies.

    But your post is really true. You will not get what you need unless you ask for it. And even then you might not get all of it. And you might have to push to get any of it. This is true for everyone - I think just some people give up because it isn't important enough or they feel like it's too risky.

    I also hate the idea that we have to justify our reasons for flexibility. IMO it's not anyone's business, including work. it should be enough to say "I'm not available" or "it's personal".

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  18. Hey, Cloud, did you happen to see bluemilk's latest post? She links to this study, which I'm going to link here in case you and other readers might interested. It's about the motherhood penalty. I do agree with you that asking is important and that the penalty is not equally applied everywhere (and we *have* to assert ourselves where we can, for ourselves and for other working parents), but I have experienced this myself - the subconscious belief that mothers are less commitment workers and thus less capable workers, leading to harsher standards for mothers, so that every request becomes a source of aggravation for management. http://curt-rice.com/2011/12/08/the-motherhood-penalty-its-not-children-that-slow-mothers-down/

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    1. I've seen that link- in fact I link to it in this post! It is the link on the bit about how mothers pay a penalty in the workplace. In fact, I've linked to it so much that I think I should go out and find some other references for this penalty. I know they are out there. But I am too lazy to go find them!

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  19. Your post inspired me to finally finish writing mine about letting go of fear at work. Some days I feel like I'm surrounded by it - not sure if it's a cultural thing or a female thing or what, but I have so many coworkers who are unwilling to speak up...

    http://houseofpeanut.blogspot.com/2012/06/goodbye-fear.html

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