Balancing Act: Family-friendly practices may burden childless workers

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Jennifer Verdeja, a massage therapist at a South Florida spa, talks excitedly about her job until the conversation turns to the unfairness of her work schedule. “Just because I don’t have children doesn’t mean I should get the Saturday night shift every week.”

As businesses make more effort to accommodate working parents, the resentment from non-parents is mounting. Early results of a new study of 25,000 workers shows two-thirds of non-parents think they carry an undue burden at the office and are expected to work longer hours than those with children.

The tension between non-parents and parents on job sites has been especially true in the private sector, according to Project 28-40, the largest ever British study of women in the workplace set to be released in early April by Opportunity Now, a UK workplace gender diversity campaign.

Sometimes the tension is subtle, exhibited in squabbles over who comes in on the weekend or gets holidays off. In other instances, clashes are overt, resulting in claims of discrimination that explode into lawsuits or force new policies.

Employers often unwittingly feed the conflict. While more than 70 percent of mothers are in the workplace, companies may forget that 42 million working households have no children under 18, according to 2012 U.S. Census data.

“The real problem is the structure of the organization,” said Donna Flagg, the author of “Surviving Dreaded Conversations” and founder of The Krysalis Group, a management consulting firm. She says managers often are terrified of someone throwing a discrimination claim at them and tend to tread carefully around pregnant workers or new parents. In doing so, they unwittingly create a double standard.

“There has to be an objective measure in place that applies rules equitably to everyone,” Ms. Flagg said. “Only a handful of companies have achieved it, and most are a long way off.”

Sandra Rodriguez, a Miami market research professional, said she is often baffled by the accommodations that working parents receive. “It’s as if they have a valid excuse for coming in late, leaving early and taking sick days.” A non-parent would be reprimanded for similar behavior, she said.

She also resents that the parents in her workplace receive more flexibility, and that she is expected to work more hours than co-workers who are married with kids.

“My personal time is less respected,” Ms. Rodriguez said. If there’s work to be completed after normal business hours, she gets asked to stay late. “It’s like I don’t have anything important to do, so it doesn’t matter if they ask more of me.”

Alisha Forbes, a manager at a multinational firm who has no children, says she experiences similar expectations — and she resents it. “If we (non-parents) cannot stay late, contrary to the attitude that parents receive, there is pressure to come up with a valid reason to justify our unavailability.”

A 2008 British study showed that single women, in particular, were working longer hours, with 40 percent regularly putting in unpaid overtime — markedly more than single men of the same age (26 percent) and working mothers (17 percent.) Today, single women still argue that while the challenges faced by working mothers are being acknowledged, the extra burden being placed on childless women goes unnoticed.

Men without children have complaints, too. The notion that a “work-life balance” should apply only to working parents infuriates Stan D’alo, a South Florida customer service technician. Mr. D’alo found that when he wanted time off to participate in tae kwon do tournaments, his manager gave him a hard time. “They allow others flexibility because I’m dependable. I’m expected to make more sacrifices,” he said.

Mr. D’alo also resents that his parent colleagues try to use kids as leverage when asking for raises. “I have had people who work at lower positions whine that they should make more money than me because I have no children.”

Ms. Flagg said organizations still haven’t figured out how to allocate time off, dole out promotions and set rules around flexibility in a way that is fair for all. But employers have come to realize that by making the lives of working parents manageable, these workers contribute more to the organization.

“There are responsibilities that having children requires and a reality to demands they place on you,” she said. “But there’s a tension that is intensifying in workplaces. If it festers and is not addressed, it will gain energy and create a lot of ill feelings.”

Conversely, parents hold resentment too, the report shows. Only a third of the women (34 percent) believe that the opportunities to advance are equal between women who have children and those who do not.

Working mothers like Janna Montgomery, who has a special-needs child and has used the Family Medical Leave Act, said single mothers are the ones that suffer most and, she believes, are automatically viewed as less committed.

In some ways, it’s a gender issue, she said. When a man has children, he gets promoted but a women has to work harder to just keep her job, she said.

Working parents also hold the widespread view that if they work flexibly, they will progress slower than their peers, regardless of contribution.

Leslie Smith, a partner in the Miami law office of Foley & Lardner, said firms like hers have begun focusing on making this a non-issue. “Everyone has a perspective formed by specific instances or circumstances,” she said. “At law firms, attrition is a big issue.”

The goal has to be not only to keep lawyers, but to encourage them to work with each other. “We need collaboration and that means the working environment has to be attractive for all.”

Cindy Krischer Goodman is CEO of BalanceGal LLC, a provider of news and advice on how to balance work and life. She can be reached at balancegalgmail.com.


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