It’s May, the month with a special day set aside to honor mothers. Those sweet but sloppy gifts made by little hands delight moms on their special day, but then the workweek begins again, bringing with it the stresses of mixing work and family responsibilities. And if the workload at home and at work isn’t enough to deal with, many women struggle with another nagging worry—the realization that no matter how skilled they are at juggling all their tasks, they may find their career progress at risk.
So what’s the answer? Many tout employer flexibility as an important step—not just in keeping women in the workforce but also keeping them on track for advancement. A recent Forbes blog entry carried an interview with Anna Auerbach and Annie Dean, founders of Werk, a company promoting flexible jobs. They go so far as to claim “flexibility is the future of feminism.”
In the article, Auerbach and Dean note that women and men often start their careers in even numbers, but after women have children many drop out or drop back in their careers. “When I went back to work after my first maternity leave, I couldn’t keep it all together,” Dean said. “No matter how hard I worked, I couldn’t make any progress at work or at home and felt like I was failing for an arbitrary reason—that I was required to work long, uninterrupted days in my office at my desk.”
Dean went on to say that she felt like she was in “an environment that was designed for my failure.” That’s why she and Auerbach started Werk so they could help women stay on track both at home and at work.
Developing family-friendly, flexible policies
Since flexibility is a benefit popular with both women and men, many employers have developed flexible workplace policies. But promoting flexibility can get complicated. Lauren Russell, an attorney with Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor, LLP in Wilmington, Delaware, reminds employers to pay attention to federal and state antidiscrimination laws as they set policies.
For example, Russell says employers need to make sure leave policies aren’t unduly restrictive and therefore have a disparate impact on women and pregnant employees. “Attendance is often an issue with pregnant employees and new parents, who are learning to juggle multiple new demands on their time,” she says. Sharing clear, written expectations with employees about performance expectations can prevent problems.
“Employers frequently complain about employee abuse of flexible workplace policies,” Russell says. “The best defense to this pitfall is to understand why you’re implementing the policy and what objective metrics you can institute to ensure that employees are still using their time constructively.”
Russell also reminds employers that flexibility policies should be available to men and women on the same basis. She also urges employers to make sure they’re not discouraging men from taking advantage of their legal rights and their employer’s policies. She says many men report that they are uncomfortable talking 12 weeks of paternity leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act even though they enjoy the same leave entitlement as women.
Employers need to understand that family-friendly policies are more likely to be successful “if they reflect a top-down mentality that diversity benefits the business,” Russell says. “Company owners and stakeholders need to buy into this idea in order for women to advance.”
Courtney Bru, an attorney with McAfee & Taft in Tulsa, Oklahoma, agrees that employers need to keep discrimination concerns in mind when designing workplace flexibility policies. They need to make sure some term or condition of employment—either formal or informal—isn’t having a disparate impact on women.
Bru also says that a policy that applies only to mothers may discriminate against fathers. “A true workplace flexibility policy addresses more than just maternity/family issues and should be entirely gender neutral,” she says.
Avoiding the “mommy track”
Keeping women on the road to advancement often proves difficult for both employers and employees. Bru says she doesn’t know of a cure-all policy that’s effective in addressing women’s concerns “without a resulting placement on some type of formal or informal ‘mommy track.’” She says she’s had experience with multiple firms in her practice in Tulsa that have tried different arrangements “without achieving positive results.”
But many employers believe the participation of women on an organization’s senior leadership team outweighs any problems related to providing flexibility for women with child- or elder-care responsibilities. “These businesses should be applauded,” Russell says.
“Most women who are given the flexibility to balance the many demands on their time pay their employers back with dedication and hard work,” Russell says. “But employers should expect that, as in any group, there may be a few individuals who abuse the system. I encourage employers not to be dissuaded by a few bad eggs and to focus on the overall benefit to the company garnered by investing in a diverse workforce, whether diversity be attained through increased retention of female employees or the advancement of any other minority group.”
Finding what works
While there may not be easy answers, employers and employees can work together to tailor solutions to individual situations. A case in point: Sarah Adams, marketing manager at the FordHarrison LLP law firm in Atlanta, has seen firsthand how flexible arrangements can work. Her son was born 10 weeks premature, so “no one (including myself) was prepared for me to be on leave.”
“However, I could not be more grateful for the flexibility that my boss and the firm has allowed me in returning to work from my maternity leave,” Adams says. Since she would have been returning when her son was only two weeks past his due date, she requested the ability to work part time for a couple of weeks before that date so that she could then work part time for a couple of additional weeks after her original leave was scheduled to expire.
“This allowed me to start working on long-range projects earlier than my employer would have anticipated and gave me the benefit of a little extra time at home with my newborn,” Adams says. The bottom line for both employers and employees is staying flexible, she says.
“Because no two situations are the same, I think it is extremely important to allow for some flexibility with new mothers’ return to the workplace,” Adams says. “In the end, it often benefits both the employer and the employee.”