The mother of all conflicts bubbles just beneath the surface in many Sacramento-area offices: Workers who are mothers hurry out early to pick up their kids while their nonmom female co-workers resent having to pick up the slack. What’s at the root of this issue, why are so few women talking about it and what can businesses do to pacify both sides?
Lolly Aita dreaded deadlines. For the 33-year-old former publisher and general manager of a Sacramento-area rental-guide magazine, deadlines meant she’d have to work until midnight—alone—while her co-workers who were mothers checked out early.
“I have to go pick up my kids from day care,” they’d say. Or, “Sorry, I can’t work late. You’re going to have to do it.”
Aita, who has no children (“I can’t picture somebody calling me Mom. That would really freak me out,” she says), had worked with some of these women before they became mothers, and now was struggling with what she perceived as a dramatic decline in their commitment to the job.
“Now they had something else to be dedicated to, which of course I didn’t hold against them. Obviously, that’s a huge commitment once you have a kid,” she says. “But their dedication level absolutely dropped. They went from putting their whole heart and soul into their job to doing just enough to get by. It’s a tough position because what do you do? You can’t say, ‘No, you can’t pick up your kids from day care.’ But the work does need to get done, and it is their responsibility.”
Aita’s predicament mirrors a growing battle being waged in offices and cubicles across the country. Few talk openly about it, yet it affects virtually every woman who works for pay in America. Just when we thought the Mommy Wars, which pitted working moms against the stay-at-homes, had reached a détente, along comes a new set of contenders: working mothers (again) vs. female employees without children. Add to the fray a large number of frustrated employers—they dare not discriminate yet can’t deny that working mothers cause their share of management headaches—and you’ve got a recipe for fireworks.
A female operations manager for a local insurance agency is one of those bosses reaching for the Advil. She struggles when her subordinates with children have to miss work—but as a mother herself, she completely understands.
“Women come in late because their kids have a hard time in the morning,” she says, “and I struggle between the dynamics of being an employee—I appreciate not getting written up when I’m five minutes late—and being a manager. If the employee’s not there to answer the phone, there’s no one to provide service to the customers.”
What’s Fueling the Conflict?
The mothers-versus-nonmothers conflict emerged in the ’90s and around the turn of the millennium as an unintended consequence of what working mothers for years have been fighting for and finally are making some headway in getting: family-friendly workplaces. The problem is, “friendly” to one group may be interpreted as unfair or even hostile by another.
To the growing ranks of nonmothers in this country, mothers seem entitled in a way no one else could hope to be. Company benefits, they point out, are mostly designed to favor people with children: more money for health insurance, subsidized child care, paid maternity leave, even adoption assistance and mutual-fund programs for newborns or newly adopted children. What’s more, mothers, citing family responsibilities, seem to be constantly scooting out the door, leaving co-workers stuck with more work. The backlash is especially vitriolic in Elinor Burkett’s The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless (Free Press, 2000), in which one outraged nonmother is quoted as saying, “People seem to think a professional office can double as a petting zoo, so they bring [children] in all the time. They are very disruptive, a huge distraction for those that are actually trying to work. . . . Breeders get so much time off to tend to the emergency sicknesses or the accidents or the school this or that. Who covers for them, who works more hours? The nonbreeders, that’s who. And no one notices. We are punished for not squirting out spawn.”
Ashley, a 30-year-old pharmaceutical sales representative from Sacramento, stops short of name-calling. But she does admit that being child-free (meaning she’s happy being childless) has its disadvantages in the workplace.
“I used to work in the office of very small psychiatric hospital, so if one person was missing, everyone else had to pick up the slack,” says Ashley, who didn’t want her last name printed. “It would be, ‘I’ve got to pick up my kids from school’; they’d call in sick because their kids were sick. I was definitely the small person there and I wasn’t making nearly as much money as some of the other people, but I was having to stay sometimes 12 hours a day. Yeah, I got overtime, but I have a life, too.”
Central to Ashley’s life is a four-legged companion that may not need day care, but certainly needs attention. But because it’s not a child, it doesn’t seem to count.
“I have a dog, and my dog is like my kid,” she says. “I don’t like to leave her at home for 12 hours a day, but if I said, ‘Sorry, I’ve got to go home and let my dog out,’ it’s a lot different than saying, ‘I’ve got to go pick up my child.’” (For the record, Ashley once did seek permission to leave work to care for her dog when it was sick. The response? “It’s a dog!”)
Aita is familiar with the feeling. “People look at you and say, ‘Oh, well, you’re single. You don’t have anything else to do,’” she says. “Well, just because I have plans to go see friends versus family—just because it’s family, it’s more important?”
But working women without children aren’t the only ones grumbling. On the other side are working mothers who often feel underappreciated for the enormous social responsibility they’ve undertaken in raising the next generation—the same generation that someday will be paying for nonparents’ Social Security—and for the tremendous workloads they bear both at work and at home. (Miriam Peskowitz, in The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars: Who Decides What Makes a Good Mother?, cites a government-funded survey confirming mothers spend twice as much time as men on chores and child care.)
Brooke, a 31-year-old full-time editor in Sacramento and mother of an almost 2-year-old daughter, says, “I don’t think anyone who doesn’t have kids understands how important it is and how much work it is to be a good parent. I didn’t, either, before I had kids.”
Kerri, 32, a single mother of a 9-year-old girl and a full-time auditor in Sacramento, agrees, saying there’s more than enough insensitivity to go around. She could hardly believe her ears the day she asked her former boss (a man who didn’t have kids) for permission to leave work when her daughter was sick.
“He said, ‘Well, can you pick her up, take her to her doctor appointment, and then find a place to put her?’ I was like, dude, you just don’t get it. When they’re sick, they want to be with their mom. They don’t want to be put someplace.”
While the occasional scathing or inept remark may point to a lack of understanding on the part of childless employers or co-workers, the fact is that the tension is rarely verbalized. People generally are reluctant to attack mothers outright; that would be like attacking apple pie or the flag, and would threaten cherished beliefs about what it means to be a woman.
Often, the pressure is felt in corporate cultures that cling to old-school practices. And make no mistake, despite the movement toward enlightened workplaces, many are still in the Dark Ages.
“I’d like to say I’m hearing it’s getting better, but I’m not,” says Pat Grady, coordinator of the Women’s Resource Center at Sacramento State. “I think these kinds of changes in our belief system take a while to really filter through. The idea of [work-life] balance hasn’t really taken hold as a concept.”
Kim Silvers, president of her own human resources management company in Sacramento, believes it’s common for subliminal messages to filter down from top management (the very same people who give lip service to family-friendly policies) that working mothers hear loud and clear: “It had better be legitimate, and it had better be serious, before you take time off.”
One 40-something mother of a 13-year-old, who holds a management position at a local community college, feels obligated to provide “face time” because that’s what everyone else does.
“I work in an environment where most of the women in higher management positions either don’t have kids or their kids are college-aged,” she says. “They come to work at 8:30 or 9 and stay until 6 or 6:30. I come in early—at 7 or 7:30—and I work through lunch. I feel guilty when I leave at 4 or 4:30, even though they don’t say anything. I’ll force myself to work later sometimes just so people see me.”
Tracie Stafford, a mother of four who once held a senior management position at Netscape in the Bay Area (and now owns her own business in Sacramento), didn’t dare leave work to care for family while climbing the corporate ladder.
“I was one of those people who looked at it as using your kids as a crutch,” she says. “I never tried to take time off. I didn’t feel I could. If you’re competing and also a minority” (Stafford is African-American) “you have to be twice as good and work twice as hard. I felt if I were to take time off for my kids that it would affect my chances of moving forward in management. The reality is that if you’re not there to make the impact, then you’re not going to get the promotion. Unfortunately, it is a trade-off.”
That’s not the sentiment of several other local mothers we interviewed, who don’t aspire to fancier titles but just want to pay the bills. They do leave work for all kinds of kid reasons, but there’s something they’d like everyone to understand: They’re still working. They’re taking work home at night, working through lunch, cutting back on office chitchat, squeezing in work-related phone calls between school and the grocery store. People just don’t see it.
“When I have to take time off because my daughter is sick,” says Kerri, “everyone thinks, ‘Oh, she’s taking a day off.’ Well, even though I’m at home, it’s not like I’m just sitting around kickin’ it. I’m working—cleaning the house, taking care of her. And then when I get back to work, I have to work through my lunches to make up the time. I come in early and I stay later, even though I can’t stay that late because I have to pick her up from the baby sitter or from school. So I really feel stressed out all the time. I don’t feel like I’m ever completely able to just relax.”
Time off comes with an enormous cost to mothers like Kerri, and not just emotionally. In The Motherhood Manifesto, Joan Blades and Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner report that the wage gap between mothers and nonmothers is even greater than the gap between nonmothers and men—and it’s getting bigger. A study showed that nonmothers with an average age of 30 made 90 cents to a man’s dollar, whereas mothers made 73 cents to a man’s dollar. For single moms, it’s even worse: 56 to 66 cents to a man’s dollar. Studies show that this mommy-wage gap directly correlates to a paucity of family-friendly policies in the workplace. The United States is one of only two industrialized countries that don’t offer paid leave (with the exception of California; see sidebar). Australia is the other, but even the Land Down Under gives a full year of guaranteed unpaid leave, compared to the paltry 12 weeks U.S. workers who work in companies with 50 or more employees receive. By contrast, in countries like France, which offer new moms 12 to 16 weeks off with 100 percent pay, the wage disparity is negligible.
But U.S. women’s workplace wars go far deeper than money. They strike at the very heart of our definitions of womanhood and motherhood, and what kind of work matters or doesn’t matter.
So who, really, is to blame? “Entitled” working mothers? Or “whining” women without kids? Experts who’ve studied the problem say neither.
“It’s convenient—and false—to make this a woman versus woman issue,” says Robin Whitmore, co-director of the Women’s Resources and Research Center at the University of California, Davis. “The correct framing of the issue is how are companies implementing their work-life policies, not their work-family policies. Employees who are not parents should have access to flexible schedules for other purposes, whether they need to go to school or engage in community service or care for an elderly parent. Employers need to envision policies covering a range of needs, not just those of working parents.”
While professional women are the focus of this story, the problem goes well beyond the white collar. In “One Sick Child Away From Being Fired: When ‘Opting Out’ Is Not an Option,” Joan Williams of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco reports on how job and family responsibilities clash in the lives of working-class men and women, forcing them to make choices no one should have to make.
Even when women do have the choice of “opting out,” it’s rarely a real choice, Williams asserts, stating, “The focus has tended to be on women’s choices and away from the constraints that make all the choices bad ones.”
The “Ideal” Worker
The notion of full-time work—a 40-plus-hour workweek (58 hours now is the norm, O magazine reports), a two-week vacation and few, if any, paid sick or “personal” days—is designed around the outdated Industrial-era life pattern of the traditional breadwinning male, Williams notes.
“We tend to define our ‘ideal’ on the job as someone who starts working early in adulthood and works for 40 years straight, taking no time off for childrearing,” she says in a phone interview. “That doesn’t fit mothers’ social role. Look to the right and left of you. People in high-powered jobs tend to be men married to homemakers, because they’re the people who have that immunity to household work that is expected of the ideal worker.”
In what Williams calls a “workforce-workplace mismatch,” several assumptions persist about what makes an ideal worker. These assumptions need rethinking, she believes, in order to facilitate change—which would not only be good news to mothers, but also both men and women of Generations X and Y who in large numbers have voiced a desire for more of a work-life balance than their predecessors had.
According to Williams, one ideal worker assumption is that commitment to the job equals long hours. All too often, she says, we characterize “go-getters” not as people who do good work, but people who are always at work.
“So for the worker who has outside responsibilities, we place the fault not on the workplace but on the worker. It becomes their fault that they’re not responsible [on the job]. Women buy into this as much as men do,” she says.
So why do women end up at each other’s throats? Because, says Williams, those who have sacrificed to become the ideal worker don’t like the idea of mothers getting something they had to give up.
Ideal-worker women can include three subsets of women: 1) Women with children who made the decision to do whatever it takes to get ahead; 2) childless women who put off having children to pursue careers, only to realize their biological clocks have expired (adding insult to injury when they’re the ones covering for the mothers); and 3) child-free women who’ve chosen never to have kids, instead seeking fulfillment in work, hobbies and adult relationships.
“The fact is,” Williams says, “all of these groups are being disadvantaged by the same system—a system that allows men to have both economic stability and a family, but not women. You often hear, ‘You can’t have it all,’ but that’s simply a statement that women can’t have what men have always had: career and family together. But it’s blaming women for not being ‘realistic.’ It’s not blaming the system.”
It’s the Law
If you’re a worker caring for a family member, there’s no better state to reside in than California, which has some of the family-friendliest laws in the country.
While the federal Family Medical Leave Act grants 12 weeks of unpaid leave to eligible workers at companies employing 50 or more people, most people can’t afford to take time off without pay. Welcome to California, the only state in the nation with a comprehensive paid family leave law.
Adopted in 2004, the Paid Family Leave Law provides eligible Californians with up to six weeks of partial pay when taking time off to bond with a new baby, foster or adopted child, or to care for a seriously ill parent, spouse, child or domestic partner. The benefits are entirely employee-funded through California’s State Disability Insurance program and allow workers to collect up to 55 percent of their salary, up to a maximum of $840 per week. Employers contribute nothing.
And here’s more good news for caregivers of school-age children in particular: the Family-School Partnership Act, which allows parents, grandparents and guardians to take time off from work to participate in their children’s school or child care activities. The law, which first took effect in 1995, was expanded in 1997 to add licensed day care facilities to the kindergarten-through-12th grade levels included in the original legislation.
Under the law (California is one of only 10 states that allows for time off for school activities), anyone who has custody of a child may take off up to eight hours per month, not to exceed 40 hours per year, to work in the child’s classroom and to attend field trips, school plays, parent-teacher conferences, school sporting events, open houses and other activities. If an employer has 25 or more employees at the same site, he or she cannot refuse the request, but can direct the employee to use vacation time, personal leave, compensatory time off or time off without pay. Employers may not fire, demote, refuse benefits, deny promotions or in any way discriminate against employees who choose to participate in their children’s school or day care activities.
An Employee’s Perspective
Karen Baker, who reports to first lady Maria Shriver as executive director of the California Service Corps, oversees 30 employees and $33 million in federal funds. She knows what it’s like to be a childless professional among working mothers. She was single until age 38, and not until her early 40s did she begin adopting children with her husband.
Baker has never had a problem with working mothers. In fact, she finds them on the whole to be great hires, and has one requirement: They must make the decision to develop their careers as opposed to just hanging in there for the paycheck. Those who are willing to make sacrifices, Baker believes, are more likely to be passionate about their work—and those are just the kinds of people she likes to be surrounded by.
Throughout the years, Baker has observed enough employees in all camps—mothers and nonmothers, married and single—to draw another conclusion: Mothers and married women, by and large, tend to focus on work more and socialize less than their single counterparts.
“All people need to feel connected,” she surmises. “If you’re single and don’t have a primary partner that fills that need, then your workplace becomes a tremendously important place to fulfill that need. Most married people are more focused on their work than spending time at the water cooler. It’s not that they don’t need to be connected, it’s just that they can get it at home.”
Now that Baker herself is an adoptive mother of two children younger than 3, she can see just where those working moms she so admires are coming from. And—surprise!—she’s been caught off guard by a few circumstances.
“I didn’t realize how many things could come up and do come up,” she says. “I have a great nanny, so I have a great setup, but if the nanny’s sick, well . . .
“I just thought you could plan it all out. When you’re single, you plan your social life, your vacations, everything. You can’t plan it all out when you have kids.”
You can, however, communicate with your employer, and you should if you really want to make work-life balance a priority, says Baker, who did just that when she was hired in her current position.
“I was days away from adopting my second child,” she recalls. “My first question to Maria was how did she feel about having a working mom. Her answer was incredible: ‘We can absolutely make this work.’ Within the first week I had my child with me, she wanted to do a site visit. I said, ‘Do you mind if I bring my baby?’ And she said, ‘Sure! Do it!’ I can’t imagine many employers going along with that. Maria is someone who really gets it. She gets the mom thing better than anyone I know.”
Thankfully, Baker says, she is able to set boundaries that help her keep it all together.
“I think everyone has to figure out differently how it’s going to work for them,” she says. “I had to set up strong parameters. When I’m home, I’m totally focused on the kids, and when I’m at work, I’m totally focused on work. I’ve made it clear to my boss and to Maria that I can’t be reached on weekends or evenings. That’s family time.”
A radical shift in thinking about what constitutes meaningful work and in managing policies and benefits so that everyone is treated fairly must take place in order to end the conflict, experts agree. Implementation of some of the following ideas, in many people’s views, would be a good start.
* Shorter workdays and/or workweeks. “You can have any good job you want as long as you’re willing to work 12 hours a day,” Joan Williams of the Center for WorkLife Law says. “There’s an intense and growing demand for 30- to 40-hour-a-week good jobs, but very few available. Yet we have ample evidence of how to change this. We have some employers who have done a tremendous amount to try to match their workplace to their workforce—but many more who really haven’t thought about the problem. There’s a huge gap between best-practice employers and most employers.” Employers may argue that it can’t be done without hurting the bottom line. Just another unexamined assumption, Williams counters. “Even though employers say they can’t afford it, that’s simply inaccurate,” she says. “If you have a very high-hours, all-or-nothing workplace, you’re going to have high levels of attrition, which is very expensive. You’ll also have trouble recruiting, higher absenteeism, higher stress and perhaps higher health insurance costs. None of these costs have employers traditionally counted.”
* Employers need to realize that everyone has a life. “Everyone goes through life changes; everyone has stuff happen to them,” says Anne Marie Smith, former president and co-founder of Sacramento-based InfoPros who’s co-authoring a book on strategic planning for businesses. “As an employer, if you value the work of your employees, you work with them and you compromise. I once had an employee who wanted to switch to part time in order to take up equine massage therapy. I was sad to lose her as a full-time employee, but I said, ‘Sure, let’s do it.’ Employees like that become or stay very loyal and do great work for you because they’re so appreciative. Work is not most people’s reason for existence. It’s a means to an end. If businesses were more visionary in realizing this, their return on this type of investment would be far greater.”
* Employers need to think beyond the 8-to-5 window. “We’re locked into thinking of ‘work hours’ as being 8 to 5,” says Pat Grady of Sacramento State’s Women’s Resource Center. “Any work done outside of those hours, because it’s not in that window that we call ‘work time,’ doesn’t really get acknowledged or recognized. There’s this underlying suspicion on the part of employers that maybe the time is not really being put in. I think employers fear that they somehow will lose control of their workforce or that employees will start taking advantage of them. But in reality, those workers whom you’re accommodating and supporting are going to be much more engaged and supportive in return. There are always going to be a few bad apples, but if people are into shirking responsibility, they’ll find a way to do it anyway. That is a separate issue from the idea of flexibility.”
* More well-paying part-time jobs with opportunities for advancement would enable mothers who want to work to stay in the workforce without cracking. At most workplaces, part-time jobs are low-paying and dead-end, if they exist at all. A Placer County social worker who wanted to be identified only as Tammy says she knew of a co-worker who felt forced to stay home full time because of a lack of options at work. “She had two kids at home, she was working full time and she began to feel like I’m sure a lot of people feel: that she wasn’t doing well at her job, she wasn’t a good wife, she wasn’t a good mom, and she was really feeling the stress. So she ended up quitting because our county doesn’t have the opportunity for women to work part time. You can come back as ‘extra help,’ but then they don’t have to pay benefits and it’s basically on their terms.”
* Employers must realize that they discriminate against caregivers at their own peril. “An employer who mishandles work-family issues is facing a potential liability problem,” Williams warns. The Center for WorkLife Law has tracked more than 600 lawsuits claiming workplace discrimination based on caregiver responsibilities; more than 60 percent were settled or ended in the plaintiff’s favor.
“[These lawsuits] have the potential to really shift the way people think about these problems,” Williams says. “When I was a young woman, sexual harassment was just a matter of bad taste. I was told any woman worth her salt could handle the situation. Then people began to be held liable for sexual harassment. And then things changed in a hurry.”
* Employers need to manage work-life policies correctly. “A mother leaving everybody else holding the bag is a recipe for backlash,” Williams cautions. “Typically, the employer allows that mother a part-time or flex-time schedule without replacing the hours she won’t be there. It’s what I call employers pocketing the part-time dividends—they allow part time, don’t replace the hours and overwork everyone else. That’s just mismanagement. The employer needs to design enough cross-training and enough backup so that when workers have family responsibilities—as they inevitably will—there is an established system for handling those issues rather than going to the people who happen to be there and asking, ‘Will you work more?’”
* Women need to stop blaming other women and realize that we’re all in this together. Showing a little appreciation for the other side goes a long way. “I’m very thankful if a co-worker steps in and handles something for me,” says Cindy Smith, a Sacramento attorney who has a baby boy. “And I try to express that to them.”
A Manager’s View
As a working mother who had raced up the corporate ranks to become director of product marketing for Netscape in the Bay Area, Tracie Stafford was trying to be an understanding boss when she bestowed special treatment on a female subordinate with three children.
That decision came back to haunt her, and to this day serves as a valuable lesson on holding all employees to the same standard.
The employee in question was a new hire—still within the three-month probationary period—and was not performing up to expectations.
“There were several reasons for her poor performance, none of which had anything to do with the fact that she had children,” says Stafford, herself a mother of four kids ranging in age from 4 to 18.
Stafford could have terminated this employee, but didn’t, creating untold resentment among her staff.
“We were working lots of overtime, and one day she came into my office and said she couldn’t do it,” Stafford recalls. “It wasn’t required of her, but the other team members were getting kind of irritated by it. They had the ability, also, to say they couldn’t work overtime, but because they did not have children, they didn’t feel as though they had a legitimate reason not to be there. At the time, I had three kids and I was there pulling all-nighters, but I had a lot of support at home from my husband and family.”
One night, Stafford says, the woman did come in to work overtime but with two of her three children in tow, not knowing (but maybe suspecting) that Stafford was planning to terminate her the next day.
“When she came in with her children, I just couldn’t do it,” Stafford says, remembering how she rationalized her decision by thinking, “Wow! She’s here! She’s really putting in the effort!”
“I should have been saying the same thing about those who were always there,” Stafford laments. “I just melted, and that wasn’t fair. I ended up keeping her on, which was really bad because I messed up that three-month (probationary) window. She tortured me for two years after that.”
In 2001, Stafford stepped off the corporate ladder, moved to Sacramento and started her own business, Exceptional Events. Far from being leery about working with any more mothers, Stafford says it makes good business sense to allow employees with families time off to be with them, just as she’d encourage a childless employee to take time off for cooking classes or to spend time helping aging parents.
“People think that’s not business-savvy, but I think employees are more productive [when they’re given the freedom to integrate their work and their lives],” Stafford says. “I make sure my employees have flexible time for children as well as for their volunteerism or hobbies. I make sure my team knows that I look at it all equally. Everyone’s so supportive of each other, if someone says, ‘I’m going bowling today,’ then we all pitch in and make it work for each other.”
Having learned from her mistake six years ago, Stafford says there’s one thing she’ll never do again: reward employees for the lifestyles they choose rather than for the work that they do.
“As long as they’re producing,” she says, “I don’t care if they work from the moon.”