09/22/2011 02:39 pm ET Updated Nov 22, 2011

Work and Family, Culture and Policy: What Works

A year ago I contributed to The Huffington Post's 2010 National Work and Family Month blogfest with a piece called "The Top Five Issues Affecting Working Families Today."

I see now that I left out one very important and overarching issue affecting the work and family field: culture.

From the aging population and the need for work-life balance for both genders, to the struggles of the working class to adapt to a weak economy, culture is part and parcel of all five issues I listed a year ago. Certainly, it is culture that affects how we view retirement, the role of mothers and fathers, family responsibilities discrimination, and flexible work schedules.

My epiphany must be credited to a Sloan Work and Family Research Network interview with Stephen Sweet, associate professor of sociology at Ithaca College and author of the introduction to a special issue of Community, Work and Family about the anticipated and unanticipated consequences of work and family policy. The impetus for this special issue was a Sloan Network panel meeting held prior to the 2009 International Community, Work, and Family Conference.

The international conference panelists offered many important and informative observations on the state of work and family policy. These observations included

the unresolved challenge of reshaping men's participation in care, unevenness in women's integration into the paid labor force and career prospects, new patterns in the timing of reproduction, tensions that result from rigid work/career designs in a 24/7 economy, and the logistics of implementing multinational corporate work-family programs in the context of varied (and sometimes contradictory) national work-family policies.

What do these issues have in common? It would appear that culture is a major factor in how work and family policies are implemented and used. Stephen Sweet offers an excellent example of how culture influences policy in his discussion of family leave. He states:

The studies indicate that the amount of resources and the ways they are directed matter significantly. For example, if a society simply offers a gender-neutral parental leave policy, leave will tend to be taken by women. If it offers paid parental leave, it will be taken by greater shares of women.

It is only after paternal (father's) leave is integrated and incentivized in these parental leave policies that we see take-up for men increase. This indicates that culture, and the way it interacts with the structures defined by policies, has a powerful impact.

The take-away from Stephen Sweet's interview is that you can't have a conversation about work and family policy without examining the impact of organizational and national culture. Perhaps culture informs and influences all work and family research and policy. However, I wonder to what extent policy can influence culture. What are the unanticipated consequences of trying to encourage or force a cultural shift? How can we use both policy and our understanding of culture to affect positive change for working families even in the midst of economic instability?

Check out the interview and see what you think. If you missed the interview on the Sloan Work and Family Research Network site, you can find it archived at the new Work and Family Researchers Network (formerly the Sloan Network), an international membership organization of interdisciplinary work and family researchers.