I’m not married, I’ve never given birth, and I work for myself—three things I don’t plan to change. Given that, I’m a seemingly unlikely person to advocate for paid family leave and policies that keep women from ending up sidelined into the “mommy track.” As I was reading Ruchika Tulshyan’s new book The Diversity Advantage: Fixing Gender Inequality in the Workplace, however, I saw my nontraditional life and needs represented by the policies the author pushes and realized these are fights I need to be more involved in, for reasons beyond rounding out my reproductive justice advocacy.
I’m fighting for myself.
Tulshyan—a writer with degrees from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and the London School of Economics and Political Science—has covered diversity and leadership in business all over the world. So, her approach is focused on outlining for upper management and business owners why intentional diversity and traditionally “woman-oriented” policies like parental leave are actually good for their bottom line.
By the time I’d consumed Chapter 3—“Give Your Employees Flexibility Without Shame”—and Chapter 4—“Reversing the Mommy Track”—I’d realized that all the anti-woman, anti-family, and anti-diversity standards embedded in our current brand of capitalism here in the United States are also inherently ableist, leave zero room for nontraditional dating lives, punish anyone with a uterus who’s of childbearing age, and trickle down to how organizations and contractors treat freelancers. Just because I don’t have a standard job or family doesn’t mean I am not affected by the values of corporate culture.
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Until the new standard becomes respecting employees’ actual lives and providing what they need to live them, I will continue to struggle with negotiating for time off from contracts, calling in sick to myself and those who contract with me, and worrying about aging parents and a sibling-by-choice whose health care will likely fall on me.
And that was just what hit me while I was reading.
I started paying more attention to my own life and stories in the news about pay discrimination, the challenges of balancing work and life, the frequency of employers ignoring the needs of people with nontraditional families. I went back and re-read The Diversity Advantage with new eyes.
The first thing that stood out was how the flexibility originally designed to comply with maternity and family leave would help those of us in the workforce with chronic medical conditions. To keep flex time from being used against those who need or choose to use it, Tulshyan suggests employers implement what she calls “flexibility without shame.” In doing so, policies of all kinds about flex time, working from home, and number of days in a workweek end up benefiting people of all genders and circumstances.
“[W]e have the ability to perform a multitude of tasks with just a portable laptop and steady Internet connection,” Tulshyan explains. “‘Going to work’ could have been largely transformed by the type of technology that exists today. The keyword here is ‘could.’ Unfortunately even many workplaces that offer flexible work policies in theory still penalize employees who are not always in the office.”
As someone with a mental health profile (dysthymia, anxiety, attention deficit disorder, and possible post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosed so far) that requires me to take medication, assess and revise treatment plans, and spend regular business hours at the doctor, a “regular” job is off the table and even my editors and other clients have to be flexible and patient. I have learned to build flex time into my schedule (though, admittedly I don’t always do this successfully). A change in work culture’s expectations would allow me to thrive more fully even as a self-employed person.
The kinds of challenges “returning” parents face are also issues for people with chronic disorders or with family members they care for.
Western Europe countries offer mothers an average of 40.5 paid weeks of leave and Finland allows over three years per child—but having a job waiting for you when you get back isn’t the only guarantee working parents need.
“Even in countries with very generous paid maternity leave—all of the Scandinavian countries, for example—there’s research to show that women suffer in other ways: They lose out on pay, leadership opportunities and even access to professional networks,” writes Tulshyan. Any activity or required leave that causes a break in active engagement in a field will create similar lags in advancement and missed chances on projects and leads.
Even though the numerous studies and interviews with executives in The Diversity Advantage show that “being able to engage employees fully part time can be much better than engaging them distractedly full time,” anyone who can’t be on board continually is often seen as a less valuable employee or an expendable contractor. Increasingly, though, millennials especially are expecting flexibility. They don’t accept the standard resistance and restrictions on advancement that often come with asking to work flexibly—even in offices and companies that supposedly offer that benefit.
A survey by telecommuting and freelance jobs site FlexJobs found that flexible work arrangements are even better for organizations than the employees. As Tulshyan notes:
82% responded that they would be more loyal to their organizations if they had flexible work options. There are consequences if companies don’t catch on: 39% have turned down a promotion or job or quit over lack of flexibility.
Women in particular have historically been and continue to be affected disproportionately by—and have become less willing to tolerate—a hostile, patriarchal work culture. According to Tulshyan’s research, even though we outpace men in pursuing upper-level degrees, the U.S. female workforce participation has dropped to 69 percent. She explains that if companies want to attract and retain women who increasingly must “balance multiple significant roles,” they’re going to need firm policies that incentivize talent to apply for open positions and stick around.
The only way to effectively implement even baseline paid maternity leave is to make flexibility “a standardized norm,” according to the research and interviews Tulshyan did around the globe. Having incrementally better maternity leave isn’t enough because it creates an inherently unequal situation where those who utilize the leave are punished simply by being absent.
“The key is to have an environment where flexible work arrangements are considered both gender-neutral and an institutionalized part of the culture,” Tulshyan writes, citing executives who continually hear that employees feel judged when they make use of flex-time policies. Those same executives and others charged with human resource development continue to be frustrated because they know the cost-benefit analysis would come out in their favor if their companies took the time to ensure policies were punishment-free.
“Time and again,” she writes, “leaders I’ve interviewed for this book have mentioned the short-term costs of implementing a dedicated flexibility program—money, time, efforts to change culture—as a tradeoff worth making for the long-term benefits of an engaged, loyal and high-performing employee base.”
I certainly know I’m more loyal to the contracts that treat me fairly—it’s a simple math equation for me. I am not in a position to ignore when I’m not paid an appropriate sum or when paying me in a reasonable timeframe is clearly not a priority; when I don’t get paid, I don’t eat.
The attitudes of corporate and “standard” workplace culture roll down to me and even more so to people in service industry and retail jobs. I know from experience, having worked extended periods in both retail and bars/restaurants. Until “skilled” workers are treated well, those of us who freelance and those who work in “unskilled” labor will continue to struggle for fair treatment. Fighting for a higher minimum wage and fair scheduling à la Fight for $15 is a worthwhile endeavor that can trickle up; we should also be fighting for the flexibility and equity policies that trickle down.
That means pushing our candidates and lobbying our legislators, because this country is embarrassingly behind in supporting women, families, parents of any kind, and especially nontraditional families—such as those that include non-primary parents, or shared elder care responsibilities, or anyone who can’t or doesn’t feel the need to be legally bound to their partner(s).
From The Diversity Advantage:
In the U.S., where the majority of the organizations I interviewed for this book are headquartered, paid leave statistics are abysmal. America is the only industrialized country that doesn’t have a government mandate to provide workers with any paid leave. The existing Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 gives only about half of all workers 12 weeks of unpaid leave for birth or medical conditions. In this regard, the U.S. trails far behind nations like Pakistan (12 weeks paid at 100% of salary) and Sundan (eight weeks fully paid).
It gets worse.
In case you haven’t had to look into it or assume that as a supposed international leader on human rights the United States would at least be doing the bare minimum, this country has no paid maternity leave mandated by federal law. And a frustrating few qualify for guaranteed unpaid leave. Your job is protected when you go on your unpaid leave—but only if you’re a full-time employee who has worked at the company for more than a year and only if the company has more than 50 employees. That leaves a disastrous number of workers out in the cold.
Some states have taken it upon themselves to tackle providing paid leave—a necessary provision of a successful governmental policy to ensure small businesses don’t incur budget-busting costs. This partnership model is used by countries all over the world.
As is the case with so many policies and programs that benefit individual workers, paid parental leave is also good for companies of all sizes. Tulshyan quotes the National Partnership for Women & Families on the subject:
In California, which has had a state paid leave program for more than a decade, 83% of workers in ‘lower-quality’ jobs who used the program returned to their previous employer — a 10-point improvement compared to workers who did not use the program.
The good news about our lack of federal law, according to experts Tulshyan interviewed, is that we have a chance to do paid parental leave correctly:
“Because they are so late to the game, I think the U.S. has a unique opportunity to innovate and lead the way on policies to do with working parents,” said Anna Steffeney, a former IT executive and founder of LeaveLogic, a startup that helps companies implement maternity leave benefits.
Essentially, not only can we lobby our legislators for well-crafted law on the subject, but businesses are not beholden to existing shoddy law, so they are free to implement well-constructed policy changes now.
Tulshyan isn’t waiting for Congress and statehouses to get it together; she’s busy explaining to corporations why paid parental leave is good for business.
“To retain and advance the best employees, especially women,” she writes, “organizations must accommodate workers who are—or want to be—parents.”
Here again, I see myself.
I’m polyamorous—which means, ideally, I have more than one romantic partner to whom I’m committed on some level, though not monogamous with. Unlike most of the poly community, however, I describe myself as “solo” because I don’t thrive with an “anchor” partner—the husband/live-in person with whom daily life and logistics are intertwined. Frankly, I don’t want to live with anyone, and my emotional labor intake and output are really well-balanced with the close friends and partners I have; there simply isn’t a need or space for the traditional life partner most people want and need.
While this means I won’t have what most would consider children of “my own”—which is more than fine because I have intentionally been a non-parent for a decade now—I have discovered I’m open to being a non-primary parent in the context of a close partnership. Poly families are not constrained by a standard structure and it’s commonplace for tight-knit groups of three or four (or more!) to either live together (probably not in my case) or close by and share the duties of caring for children, siblings, aging family members, and other loved ones during times of stress or sickness.
That all may sound lovely or weird or overly ambitious depending on your background, but legally speaking it is a great big mess. I don’t have close immediate family and never plan to get married, which means I’ll never have immediate family. My parents pop in and out of my life at the whim of my mother, which means I will likely be charged with their care. But they are the only people on behalf for whom I have any legal right to take family leave. Just because I’m not married and have no blood siblings doesn’t mean I don’t have anyone who relies on me and whom I would want to care for.
Several of the recommendations Tulshyan makes under her subhead, “The Case for Adequate Paid Maternity Leave,” would help more than just mothers.
“Working mothers could cumulatively save $14 billion if companies offered a global return-to-work policy that allows them to work just four days a week, at full pay, for the first six months after they return to work,” writes Tulshyan. And why not extend that—which you’d have to under the gender-neutral, flexibility-without-shame standards—to people pursuing new treatment plans for medical conditions or taking their turn at home with the children they co-parent so a partner can go out of town to care for a sick parent?
The stats Tulshyan quotes from an op-ed at the Wall Street Journal by Google executive Susan Wojcicki (currently CEO of YouTube) would certainly only improve with policies that benefit people like me.
“When Google increased its paid maternity leave to 18 weeks, the rate at which new mothers left the company dropped by half,” Wojcicki wrote. “It’s much better for Google’s bottom line—to avoid costly turnover, and to retain the valued expertise, skills and perspective of our employees who are mothers. … Best of all, mothers come back to the workforce with new insights. I know from experience that being a mother gave me a broader sense of purpose, more compassion and a better ability to prioritize and get things done efficiently.”
The same would be true for those with other kinds of life experiences. The more diverse your organizational structure and staffing gets, the better your company becomes at catering to a diverse clientele or market.
Here, again, millennials especially are intolerant of organizations without built-in flexibility. In fact, not offering this benefit is increasingly costing companies young talent. I identify completely with the reasoning millennials cite. “[Forty-eight percent] of millennials would avail of paid parental leave when they had children, more than any other previous generation,” writes Tulshyan. “Even if they aren’t planning to ever have children—or any time soon—knowing that they’re working for an inclusive environment that values families is important.”
These values are even more important for someone who does freelance and contract work because I’m already seen as expendable and/or interchangeable too much of the time. I can get “off-ramped” simply because I’m of childbearing age—whether or not I actually want children. Most prospective clients won’t ask; they’ll just go with the male application or proposal so they don’t have to worry about it. But if we had a work culture that neutralized this tendency, I wouldn’t have to screen so hard or be so specific in contract language to ensure any time off—sick time of my own or potential family leave—won’t end or void my contract or lead to it not being renewed.
Tulshyan concludes her chapter on reversing the “mommy track” by turning a current losing situation into a win-win:
[I]t’s devastating that a working mother’s career options and her child’s care can be determined by how progressive her employer is on this issue. … This is an opportunity for employers to differentiate themselves and innovate early to find solutions. It’s good for women, but it’s also great for business.
The most optimistic and far-reaching existing policy about flexibility and paid family leave in The Diversity Advantage is also the simplest, and the one I think should be the new standard. It comes from global technology company SAP’s “best practices policy” and would cover all the imagined and yet to be conceived life challenges:
All employees with a permanent contract, regardless of age or career stage, are eligible for the program for extended absences such as: parental leave for all genders; sabbatical; caring for a relative; sickness.
What a concept: respecting all aspects of the lives of employees, no matter their circumstances. Sign me up!