By lawblogger • November 12, 2007•Balancing Private and Professional Life
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.