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Making Work-Life Policies Equitable for All

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In the recent op-ed piece, "Family Well-Being Tied to Men's Work Lives," Anne-Marie Slaughter, author of the big buzz-generating Atlantic article, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," and Joan Williams, Founding Director of the Center for WorkLife Law at UC Hastings College of the Law, take the work-family discussion to men. They say that not only do more men need to take paternity leave, but workplace culture needs to change so that they won't be seen as "less masculine" if they do.

According to a recent report by the Center for Policy and Economic Research, there are ways to structure parental leave to support this kind of change. Policies that would promote greater gender equality would include equal amounts of nontransferable paid leave time for mothers and fathers. This kind of policy "would provide direct financial incentives for fathers to assume half (or at least some portion) of the infant-care responsibilities."

California's Paid Family Leave (PFL) is an example of a policy that gives equal amounts of time to new mothers and fathers. It offers "up to six weeks of partial pay" for "fathers as well as mothers during the first year after a child is born or placed with the family." The Center for Policy and Economic Research has also indicated that the PFL is working. A recent survey found that a majority who used this leave "found it had a positive effect on their ability to care for their babies," and the number of men taking it has "risen steadily since the program was introduced." And according to a majority of over 250 employers surveyed, the PFL "had no or very minimal impact on their business operations," and in fact, improved morale.

All of this is good, and with the United States lagging behind many countries in offering paid or unpaid parental leave, more can be done to support working parents' ability to care for their new babies.

However, there is a big problem with expanding these kinds of "family" leave policies. Plain and simple: they are unfair to other employees who are not parents. For a long time now, our society has had the pronatalist assumption that parents and children come first, and this has resulted in inequitable policies in the workplace.

It's not a new problem. About 10 years ago, Elinor Burkett wrote all about it in Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless. On the ground in the workplace, many non-parent employees resent a culture in which they are expected to "pick up the slack" for their parent colleagues, and how these colleagues can take advantage of leave and flex-time they don't so easily get.

For flex-time, leave and even telecommuting policies to be fair for all, parenthood has to stop being the central focus behind their development. Here are three ways these kinds of policies could be made more equitable:

1. Eliminate parental leave policies and expand paid time off, or PTO policies instead.

OK, stay with me here. I am not suggesting parents get no leave when they are new moms and dads, just that this time be treated as one kind of PTO employees can take. Expanding PTO policies to include parental leave as one of the reasons employees can choose to take it would treat all employees more fairly. More companies these days understand this. As Bonnie Beirne, director of service operations for Administaff Inc. says, "Employees need to feel they're treated in a consistent way and they have the same opportunity as other employees to request time off for personal needs."

2. Offer flex-time regardless of parental status.

Cali Williams Yost, who has advised the United Nations, Microsoft and Johnson & Johnson on flexible work strategies says rather than focusing on who has the "work-life balance higher ground," flex-time policies should not require asking what the employee is taking the time for, and "Instead, employees should focus on, 'How am I going to get my job done?'"

3. Offer telecommuting regardless of parenthood status.

Telecommuting is one the rise; a 2008-2009 WorldatWork survey indicated that over 40 percent of U.S. companies said they have a telework program. These programs need to ensure there's no parental bias - that its availability does not favor parents who want to work from home over employees with no children who want to do the same.

In a nutshell, like discrimination based on race, gender, or sexual preference, time off, flex-time and telework policies need to reflect equal treatment for all employees, no matter who they are or the lifestyle they choose.

Slaughter and Williams say it is "time to change the workplace for everyone." They are right. But unlike their focus on work-family ("family" meaning having children) balance, "everyone" means more than mothers and fathers. In the larger picture, reaching true equity means moving beyond pronatalist beliefs that result in policies that are preferential to parents. Ultimately, it means stopping the reinforcement of pronatalism at work.

Laura Carroll is the author of The Baby Matrix: Why Freeing Our Minds From Outmoded Thinking About Parenthood & Reproduction Will Create a Better World.