Our mothers told us we could have it all: a great career and a loving family. But what happens when the 9-to-5 business day leaves us too frazzled to enjoy all of it? By implementing creative solutions, businesses and employers have managed to chip away at the once impermeable 9-to-5 schedule, and it just might be working — for everyone. Thanks to technology and the persistent demands of workers in all sectors, the feminist goal of creating workplaces that support mothers and fathers is within reach. But even with all these advances, we still have a long way to go.
According to a 2004 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), over 27 million full-time workers now have flexible schedules. In 2009, BLS reported that 28 percent of those in the workforce are employed part-time, the majority to meet family needs, such as childcare. These current trends may reflect a growing realization by employers that flexible work schedules can be good for them, too. This paradigm shift just might make it easier for working parents to have it all and enjoy it, too.
Karrin Genovese, a doctor of internal medicine at Cardiovascular Medical Associates on Long Island and a mother of three children under six, convinced her employer that allowing her to work a compressed three-day workweek was not only in the best interests of her family, but of the practice as well.
Many patients prefer to see female doctors, who represent a small percentage of general internists, so retaining women like Dr. Genovese is critical. Because she was the only female doctor in her practice and a highly valued employee, Cardiovascular Medical Associates realized that the risk of losing her as an employee far outweighed the cost of accommodating Dr. Genovese’s needs, and granted her proposal for a compressed work week. Her schedule allows her to keep her full-time salary and benefits. Dr. Genovese reports that the days she works are very long and intense but well worth the extra days at home. Her practice is also happy because her longer days allow her to accommodate the schedules of patients who cannot leave work during traditional work hours. The arrangement has been so successful and mutually beneficial that additional doctors have since been hired with compressed schedules.
Working from home is another option. Karen Donnelly has worked for a year and a half as a financial analyst for Eco-Products, a manufacturer of compostable food service products. After her daughter was born in October 2009, management granted her a contract allowing her to work a 32-hour weekly schedule entirely from home. Kim Miller, a senior financial analyst in the Department of Indirect Costs for Federal Grants at New York University, negotiated with her boss to work from home two days a week. Although she eventually resigned rather than return to work full-time, NYU now contracts individual projects out to her that she completes from home, a situation which is working well for both Kim and her employers. Karen’s and Kim’s high-quality work and the independent nature of their jobs have made telecommuting beneficial for both their employers.
Job sharing is also a mutually beneficial option to employers and employees. One Long Island school district demonstrated its commitment to retaining excellent teachers as well as recognizing the importance of employees’ families. When high school teachers Sara Wesley and Dena Norton had their daughters, they negotiated to share a position for two years. Instead of having to find two replacements for these experienced teachers, the school district only had to fill one position while Sara and Dena shared the other. Even more impressive, both employees, now part-time, were able to keep their medical benefits. The teachers, the district, and the students all won because of the creative solutions offered by the two moms and embraced by the district.
Whenever an individual is considering employment options, a variety of values, such as proximity of the office to home or vacation time, might take precedence over salary. Flexible scheduling is fast becoming one more consideration. The March 2007 Labor Review Report stated that 20 percent of people telecommute, a significant enough number to make these jobs valuable — and, for some, priceless.
While these stories are encouraging, the picture still remains bleak for some parents. Women report they were forced to accept smaller salary increases and fewer promotions, perhaps resulting from their physical absence from the office or their employers’ assumptions that they are not interested in promotions.
In jobs for which seniority and continuity of work are the highest considerations, the flexibility offered to parents who work part-time or share jobs can be punitive if parents’ choices aren’t adequately compensated and supported. Working parents report that they fear “rocking the boat” if they want to bargain more competitively for increases. While some see the flexibility of their jobs as worth the sacrifice, others feel it unfair that salary and mobility were not based solely on performance. In fact, several women interviewed for this article refrained from revealing their real names because they feared complaints from less supportive staff members or competition for their coveted positions.
One interviewee shared that while her employer was open to telecommuting at first, she felt the situation shifted once she began working from home. Grace Parks told us:
Several years ago, I was hired for a job that I loved. I was told that I was a “perfect fit” for the organization and had “a very bright future” there. When my husband and I learned we would be relocating for his job, I floated the idea of telecommuting to my direct boss as well as to his boss, the president of our organization. I had not expected them to agree, but they both said they were excited by the possibility, because they wanted me to remain in my current position and be “groomed” for other tasks and future promotions. We made plans for me to telecommute after the move and make regular trips to the office for “face time.”
From my new home, I worked a regular 40-hour workweek, and made sure my work kept to the high standards both my boss and I expected. I attended every staff meeting by phone, was always available during business hours, and traveled back for important meetings and conferences. During my third or fourth trip to the office, however, I was called into the president’s office and told, “This arrangement is not working.” I had been given absolutely no notice of any problem with my work, and when I said this, my boss rushed to assure me that wasn’t it. “You’re great,” he said, “but you’re just not here in the office every day, and that’s a problem. I can’t just walk across the office and talk to you. It’s unfair to other employees.” When I pointed out that he had approved the telecommuting plan, and that my work had remained excellent, he flat-out told me, “We’re in a tough place financially, and since you’re not here every day, you could be seen as more expendable.”
I soon discovered that one of the company’s vice presidents had been lobbying the president to lay me off, because he resented the fact that I was permitted to work from home. Everyone made it clear that I was very good at my job and they remained pleased with my work. The only reason I was suddenly considered “expendable” was because I did not work on site. I pointed out the unfairness of this about-face and managed to keep my job, but I was never allowed to feel secure in it again, and had to account for every project completed, every moment worked, to prove that I wasn’t slacking from a distance. The fact that I telecommuted was often cited — openly or merely hinted at — in order to justify denying me both promotions and raises, despite excellent annual reviews from my employer.
This story is not uncommon, yet the March 2007 Labor Review Report points out that 66 percent of jobs are “amenable” to telecommuting. This growing trend indicates that for highly valued employees with proven and successful track records, employers may be willing to put aside traditional job requirements to avoid the trying and costly hiring process. For feminists, the challenge becomes holding employers to those promises and ensuring that flexible arrangements do not beget discriminatory practices.
Clearly, there is much more American employers can do to support working parents and to offer them flexible options. Stories of workplaces that succeed in this regard can serve as models for others. Since many employees and employers agree that flexible scheduling can work, and as these arrangements become the norm, maybe we will see a day when our mothers’ dreams for us come to fruition. If we persist in our efforts to compel workplaces to support families — maybe we can have it all.
Editor’s Note: For more information and advice on finding jobs with flexible schedules, including a sample proposal for approaching an employer about flexible arrangements, download Elka Maria Torpey’s article, “Flexible Work: Adjusting the When and Where of Your Job,” from the Summer 2007 edition of Occupational Outlook Quarterly (BLS website: www.bls.gov).