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Flextime Mommies: How Can We Avoid Resentment?

Editor's Note: As part of Ms. JD's 5th Birthday celebration, we'll be looking back at our favorite posts over the years.

I was reading this article on the "army of exploitative mummies" (the British way to write mommies) in the Ms. JD Weekly Round-up, and my first reaction was indignation. The article argues that resentment toward flextime workers is justified and that "however good it sounds in theory, in the nasty detail of practice, flexible working all too often imposes a burden on businesses, on standards, on services, on clients and on the economy." Before continuing, it's important to note that this article was written by a British author and that the U.K. seems to have progressed farther than the U.S. in making flex-time working a reality (if I'm reading the article correctly, women and men in the U.K. raising children under 6 have a right to flexible working already). The U.S., in comparison, arguably has less experience with the reality of flex-time working, though in my experience many law firms offer this option to women associates anxious about starting a family while working for the firm.

Despite my negative reaction to the article, I couldn't get it off my mind. The author sums up the resentment women who don't use flextime have toward those who do with the following diatribe she heard at a cocktail party: “You think that just because you have lovely babies or terrible teenagers you have a God-given right to leave the office any time you like, to go to their nativity plays or their parents’ days, while the rest of us do your work for you and keep your lovely job warm for you, without any thanks, until you see fit to come back from your blissful maternity leave or your half-term holidays.” Wow, I thought, having a hard time picturing any law firm associate I know telling a colleague off that way in the PC halls of today's law firms. But then I wondered . . . is that what the men and women who don't use flextime are thinking about those of us who either do or hope to?

First, I've always believed that to truly achieve equality in any profession, women have to stick together. If society still socializes women to be the primary caregivers (or if you believe that women and men are innately different and that women are born more adept at that role), then those women who choose not to have children can bring the whole movement to a standstill if they insist that the status quo is fine for women just because it is fine for them.

Second, is there a "Universal Worker" standard that men have been allowed to meet because of their historical lack of family obligations that women should now emulate or is reform needed across the board in how our society prioritizes family and work obligations? If there is a standard, as this article suggests, for worker availability and commitment for the economy to suceed and for maximum efficiency to be reached, then we need to ask ourselves whether there is a way for women to meet this standard without us as a society losing something more important. If the choice is a perfectly efficient economy with women included and children left home to raise themselves (presumably with attendant social problems that come with unsupervised and unattended children), then we have to ask what we would choose in such a trade-off. We also need to ask whether this author is just blowing smoke because what proof is there that the economy would suffer if people worked a little less? Isn't it possible that more rested and happier workers would perform at a higher efficiency level when they were working, leading to an aggregate gain?

If we assume that the Universal Worker standard is real, though, then the real issue is that women are handicapped to compete. As I wrote here, if we don't change the expectation that women and not men can and should be the primary caregivers of children, then women will never be able (or choose) to become Universal Workers. Those women who choose not to have children or who choose to have children and suffer the stigmatization that many women experience as working mothers who don't make career concessions for their families (as men don't) may stand as token symbols for equality, but true equality won't exist.

What's the answer then? If we have flextime work, these hidden resentments still might fester, invisibly harming the careers of women who use flextime. One of my biggest fears about having children and putting my professional advancement on pause (or at least slow-motion) is that I'll never recover professionally. I will have lost too much time to come back in and make partner or reach the pinnacle that otherwise would have been within my grasp. The author confirms my worst fears. "Achievement, " she writes, "involves weighting the work-life balance heavily in favour of work. Flexitime is at odds with great achievement."

Perhaps we need a balance between the Universal Worker and flextime working. If both partners, men and women, equally shared the professional consequences of having children, then each could take a little flextime while the other was the Universal Worker, and it would cause less aggregate harm to the career of each. Since most people have at least one child, this new standard would eventually change the definition of the Universal Worker since arguably every worker would be taking a little more time to be home with his or her children. Only by implementing policy changes that both men and women equally utilize, I would argue, can we achieve true professional equality.

11 Comments

PajamaProfessional

I just read a similar post about this on http://www.theglasshammer.com- called "Why Working Mothers Lie", that post and it's comments also looked at the debate you mentioned here.  The poster wrote that she would just lie about a late train or a flat tire before she would say she had a sick child to stay with. Perhaps this is what it's come to, parents take the time to stay with the sick child but don't mention it.  Clearly it's not an ideal scenario, but it might keep office resentments at a minimum.  I have to admit, while not opposed to flex time for parents, as someone without children it does grate on my nerves to hear about people taking off for this and that because of their children.  It's hard not to resent staying longer, or covering for someone because little johnny has a toothache, which isn't really my problem to deal with. I don't find the obligations of my personal life less pressing because they don't include a child.

bethb

Your feeling about this just shows how the structure needs to change to allow employees in general (not just mothers and fathers) to take time off for whatever personal reasons they may have. Flexibility is something all employees should be afforded. In the same vein as it is not fair to allow mothers, but not fathers, to leave work to tend to their sick children, it is equally unfair to not allow childless employees time off to tend to their various commitments. It's work/LIFE balance, not work/CHILDREN balance.

Peg

1.  I am not so sure that all employees should have flexibility to do whatever they need to do.  As somebody who has had to supervise upwards of 100 people at one time, it is nearly impossible to be productive and efficient and allow for people to work whenever they want.  Additionally, as somebody in a client centered field now, employees need to be able to meet the needs of clients and not the other way around.
2.  I am also not so sure that there are any non-dependent-related personal life issues that are as pressing as a sick dependent (whether it be a child, an aging parent or another human being that is dependent on you for their well-being).  I really need to get some body work done on my car.  I really need to get myself in for a physical.  I really need to have the plumber come re-direct my irrigation system overflow.  However, those things can wait, and have waited.  If my kid is sent home from school because she has a 103 degree temperature, explain to me how that can wait.  I am not saying that this should be my co-workers' problem.  But the problem is real, nevertheless and if the company wants me to keep working there, it is going to require some compromises.  The employer will have to compromise and I will have to compromise. 
For those people that feel they have to pick up the slack for parents, I just don't get it.  If you work in a job that has more than 1 person working together, the employees will each bring their own strengths and weaknesses and the beauty of having more than one person is that each brings something to the group that makes up for the shortfalls of the others.  Just to play devil's advocate… what if I said that I am tired of working with people that talk too slow and people that can't use basic computer applications like Excel?  I end up having to spend valuable time listening to the slow talkers and fixing messed-up spreadsheets.  So what?  That's life.  I have often heard childless people complain about working alongside too many parents with too many child-related personal problems.  I sense that there is some deeper resentment underlying these complaints; something more than just resentment about picking up the slack.  It is all too easy to pick on parents and their problems if you aren't one yourself.
3.  If a work place allows for flexible hours, they should be offered to men and women alike.
4.  If flexible hours are not available to everyone than those that get them should pay with (a) having to use vacation/personal days, (b) having to make up the time (i.e. billing from home or on the weekends) or (3) by taking a reduced salary or position.  If they do one of those things I am not sure that co-workers will have anything to complain about. (at least not in this country where flex-time is not a government-granted right).

bethb

I agree with numbers 3 and 4. I think 1 is an irrational fear, especially when you consider that working fewer hours will have an impact on compensation. There are always going to be people at law firms who will work themselves to death if it means bringing home more money. Having flexible arrangements available to everyone, no matter their status as parent or non-parent, will not impede productivity because not everyone will utilize that. I understand that it is not fair for non-parents at work to resent parents who take time off to be with their children; but I also don't think it is fair for parents to maintain that those who - for whatever reason do not have children - do not have other pressing things in their lives that are important to them.
I am obviously not talking about things like having work done on one's car or one's house. But there are many reasons why people do not have children, and to characterize children as the only acceptable reason for demanding flexibility in work hours seems unreasonable to me, and will only further expand the chasm that already exists between parents and non-parent workers.

Peg

Wow, I never said that people without kids don't have things in their personal lives that are important to them.  Believe it or not, people WITH kids have other things (besides kids) in their personal lives that are important to them also.  My point was about the "pressing" character of other "personal life" things and an idea that these things are just as pressing and a sick child.  I also never said that children are the only acceptable reason for demanding flexible work schedules.  There is a real argument that, in appropriate industries, flexible work hours yield more individual productivity and greater creativity.  
So, name a pressing personal life issue that would justify demanding flexibility at work.   Remember, this would have to be something that you would stand on your desk to fight for —something that you would quit over if you didn't get it, just as I would if my daughter had a medical emergency. (First concession: an employee's own physical and mental health is also "pressing" but there are laws to protect this personal concern.)  (Second concession: religious obligations may be one but there are laws to protect your right to practice your religion and I don't hear non-religious people complaining all the time about people of other religions taking time to observe religous obligations)
Why the chasm, do you think?  What is it all about?  It can't be all about picking up slack.  I think it is much more about judgment and jealousy (both ways) than that.

bethb

I think the split is absolutely about judgment and jealousy. 
And as to your challenge: what about an emergency with my same-sex partner's health? What if we do not have something like a civil union or domestic partnership, so we don't have legal rights to protect this? I understand that firms are becoming more progressive in offering "domestic partner benefits," whatever that might mean; but that's something I just might stand on my desk and quit over.
 

Peg

So it is interesting to me that you offer up a same-sex partner scenario.  It is almost like you are looking for me to be judgmental about this arrangement.  That would make for great internet thread: judging mothers vs. judging lesbians.  Why didn't you just say your spouse, or a long-term girlfriend, or your non-dependent relative's health (like a sister or grandparent?). 
In general, I don't think we are talking about true emergencies when we talk about the riff between parents and non-parents. (and, I've already accounted for a dependent adult in a previous comment) I can't help but think there is a difference between somebody that has an adult that they care deeply about that may run into an occasional health emergency and somebody that has one or more children that are dependent on them for everyday support, supervision, etc. This comment train started with a comment about a child's toothache.  Would you still be talking about your adult companion in the context of a toothache? (rhetorical) This comment train also began with the idea that the childless have pressing things in their personal lives that are just as pressing as a sick child.  I don't think this was meant to encompass a one-time emergency scenario. If that was the case, we should be demanding flexible work schedules just in case my house burns down in a wildfire. 

bethb

I am not looking for judgment. I am simply responding to your suggestion that I name a pressing personal life issue that would justify demanding flexibility in the same way an emergency with a child would. I chose the closest approximation I could envision in my life, and that alone is my reason for offering up that scenario.
But I agree that the one-time emergency situation was not the intention of this thread. While I do not think childless employees have any right to resent their co-workers with children who choose flexible schedules so they can be more involved in their children's lives, I maintain that childless workers should be able to choose flexible schedules so they can be more involved in their own non-work lives. I found an interesting article entitled "The Evils of 'Elasticity': Reflections on the Rhetoric of Professionalism and the Part-time Paradox in Large Firm Practice," 33 Fordham Urb. L.J. 81 (2005). The author (Amelia J. Uelmen), a fourth-year litigation associate who requested part-time status so she could keep up with community activities outside the law firm, faced immediate backlash as a result of merely asking about whether part-time was an option. She writes, "Granted, my request would be a little unusual. The only other associates who had asked for similar arrangements were mothers with infants. But why should that make a difference? It was not as if I were asking for particular generosity, for I was ready to take a proportional cut in pay, and to forego any bonuses." 
I see no reason why asking for different schedule arrangements should be something limited to parents. I think it's about compromise. If someone is willing to sacrifice compensation in order to have more time for him or herself, to do whatever it is he/she needs that time to do, it should not be difficult to make that happen.

woods

<font size=“3” face=“Times New Roman”>There are two separate issues raised in the article/posts that influenced me to respond- (1) the relationship between flextime and workplace efficiency and (2) how to change the perceptions of employees who decide to work flextime, and more specifically, men and women who take this time to care for their children. </font>
<font size=“3” face=“Times New Roman”></font>
<font size=“3” face=“Times New Roman”>Ideally, I think that there should be both a <i>gender</i> and a <i>reason</i> neutral policy that allows any worker at a law firm to take advantage of flextime.<span>  </span>The purpose of flextime is not to give employees a free for all enabling them to evade job duties.<span>  </span>In fact, no employer would approve a specific flextime plan where it is clear that the worker will not be able to fulfill his/her responsibilities to clients – and all requests for flextime are subject to some form of administrative review.<span>  </span>In my opinion, flextime is desirable for all employees because it shifts power back to employees to engage in a discussion with their employers over how to balance their personal interests and the interests of the firm so employees can bring their full game to the workplace and work efficiently.<span>  </span>It is undeniable that the personal reasons that cause employees to work inefficiently in a non-flextime scenario go above and beyond caring for children, regardless of whether we view particular personal reasons for wanting flextime other than child caring as valid.<span>  </span>If flextime can reduce tardiness, absenteeism, increase employee morale, increase retention, serve as an incentive for recruitment AND an employer agrees that under a proposed flextime schedule an employee will be able to fulfill responsibilities to clients, why should the reason for wanting flextime matter?  I’m not convinced that it should. </font>
<font size=“3” face=“Times New Roman”></font>
<font size=“3”><font face=“Times New Roman”>Also, I think that there are major negative consequences against those who take flextime to care for their children when we assess the validity of particular reasons for wanting flextime and then discriminate against non-dependent-personal related reasons as invalid.<span>  </span>I doubt that people would criticize employees who take flextime to care for their children as exercising a “God-given right to leave the office any time you like” if flextime was available to all employees on a gender and reason neutral basis.<span>  </span>In a gender and reason-neutral flextime system, that skeptic would have the same right and ability as the parent to work flextime.<span>  </span>By de-emphasizing the privileged status that we associate with child-caring when determining whether one should have flextime options, we can change the negative perceptions (which undoubtedly disproportionately burden women) towards employees who exercise this option for the specific purpose of caring for their child.<span>  </span>It is these negative perceptions that later affect whether employees who take flextime to care for their children can make partner or generally have equal opportunities in the firm as employees who do not exercise this option. <span> </span></font></font>
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<font size=“3”><font face=“Times New Roman”>Obviously, more needs to be done to better enable employes who decide to take flextime for whatever reason to be competitive candidates for partner, but that is something that needs to be done regardless of which side of this debate you fall on.<span>  </span><span> </span></font></font>

Judith

I'm so very glad to be a partner in a law firm, now that I read this.  I made partner before I had kids, but I'm sure I'm resented by some of the partners.  I don't work the crazy hours, and I don't make the crazy money.  But only my clients depend on me, and they don't care when I work.  Flextime for me means, as my husband puts it, any sixty hours a week I want.  And that's pretty close to reality.  I come home for dinner, almost every night.  On the other hand, I'm available via email at 2 a.m.  I don't see how this impacts my co-workers.  I can see it being a problem in an environment where they need to wait for me to finish my phase of the project before they can start their own.  But if you know you need the flexibility, don't commit to things that require a completion time you cannot meet.

Karen H

See the post here http://www.theglasshammer.com/news/2007/09/27/why-working-mothers-lie/ purportedly by a woman that lies when her family interferes with work. 

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