Thursday, March 20, 2014

How can mothers win? Ending the bias against caretakers.

As we’ve seen, both women and men face challenges reconciling work-life integrity. Usually, individuals are forced to adjust their own behavior: share household burdens, manipulate supervisors’ perceptions, or just opt out entirely.

What makes this whole balancing process harder is that caretakers suffer a particular bias at work. In her seminar last week on “Reducing the Caretaker Penalty: Norms, Laws, and Organizational Policy,” Stanford University’s Shelley Correll demonstrated how mothers, for example, are paid less than both fathers and childless women---nearly 5-7% less per child, in fact. But it’s difficult to overcome this because of two absurd and paradoxical societal perceptions:
  • The assumption that mothers are less committed to their office work
  • The normative view that mothers should be more committed to their children than their office work-and if they’re not, they’re bad people.
If mothers try to work their way out of the caretaker bias, they’re seen as selfish, arrogant, and dominant, and are penalized accordingly. Basically, mothers can’t win!

So can laws change societal norms? Professor Correll explains how, yes, they can not only provide punitive protections but also create more symbolic social consensus that implies what’s right and wrong.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) gives employees that have worked for over twelve months in an organization with more than 50 people the right to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year. Just knowing about FMLA and other organizational leave policies positively affects how colleagues view mothers and other caretakers who take short leaves. Even a limited law that’s weakly enforced can promote gender equity.

If we enable workplace leave more reflexively, we can prep society for more openness, namely to the reality that all people---men, women, rich, poor---have and must honor responsibilities outside of the workplace. As Professor Correll put it, “work should be a verb, not a place,” and Best Buy’s management has pioneered Results Only Work Environments (ROWE), where employees are paid for results and output rather than the number of hours worked.

Convincing employers and supervisors of the merits of this kind of flexibility might be more difficult, because they may have legitimate concerns about their workforce. But these employers ought to keep two things in mind. One is that their own expectations of different groups---women caretakers, African Americans, etc---are often incorrectly biased, and these are biases that impede a fair and efficient workplace. Another is that more flexible work environments will mean longer-term retention of good workers.

Low- and hourly-wage workers and their employers face another challenge: their work is inherently based on time commitment, and already feels risky. Even if they can afford it financially, these workers don’t want to take FMLA because it will prejudice their employers upon return.

Accordingly, good laws are even more important in these cases, setting the norm for what is right.

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