Challenging the Norm

I remember announcing to my boss that I was pregnant. She greeted me warmly with a hug and a “Congratulations.” Then she asked me when I was due. After telling her my due date, we discussed what parts of my job would need to be handled by others while I was on maternity leave, and we agreed on which colleagues could take on those roles. I left that meeting satisfied and hopeful. A few days passed and word spread that I was expecting. One day, a colleague came into my office, sat down with a smile on his face and said, “So, I hear that you’re having a baby. When are you due?” I told him the date, which was right after the college’s spring break. His reply: “Wow, you didn’t plan that well, did you?”

I’m horrible about knowing what to say on the spot, so I simply chuckled. To that, he wished me luck and left my office. That was nine years ago, and I remember it like it was yesterday. I know what I was wearing, what he was wearing, and that it was a sunny day. I also remember seething because I couldn’t believe that those were the words he chose to say. I didn’t plan that well? Did I not plan it well because it fell in the middle of a semester? Did I not plan it well because I should have been more careful to properly map out my childbirth around my career? Why did it matter? Why do women have to choose between mothers and a having a career? 

That same question creeped in my mind when I read article after article about Florida State University’s work from home policy: essentially, parents (i.e. mainly mothers) would not be allowed to work from home in order to care for children. Let me put that another way: children being home is no longer a viable reason to work from home; therefore, no longer allowed. Now, there are many reasons why this has struck a nerve. During a pandemic where back to school plans for K-12 students are all over the place and childcare facilities are limiting the number of children allowed, this proves a very tricky situation for parents. If schools reopen in a hybrid model, and childcare facilities continue to limit the number of children allowed in, what are parents to do? Whether COVID-19 is a factor or not, it’s important to understand why a policy like FSU’s is problematic about and why women will reap the majority of the consequences.

  • This policy reinforces the notion that one must choose between family and career. Unfortunately, when it comes to motherhood, society still operates as though mothers cannot be great employees, businesswomen, CEOs, and entrepreneurs. Socially (backed by employment policies), the thought is still that a mother must be in front of her children all day and all night. If a woman has the nerve to be away from her children to work, then she’s not making the best decision for her family. How many fathers are thought to be neglecting their children if they work? Not many, I presume.
  • It goes back to the traditionalist work view that in order to be productive, one must physically be at the office. While there are some who absolutely hate remote work, there are others who have thrived in it. Companies have gone as far as making remote work part of their new work culture. Regardless of what side you fall on, having a remote work option is great for parents because it shows that companies finally realize that productivity can happen anywhere. Also, it reinforces the fact that real life is indeed blended. For example, my entire office is on my phone. I can send documents, email colleagues, and check voicemail anytime during the day (or night). Technology has made it so that everything employees need is on their phones or tablets. I (and many employees) no longer have to be tied to our desks in order to be “productive.” Productivity happens throughout the 24-hour cycle. FSU’s policy eliminates that idea.
  • The policy is reactive instead of proactive by acting out of fear. For those of you not in higher education, let me tell you that higher education is slow to change and often acts out of fear. This policy does just that. If parents work from home while caring for their children, will work actually get done? How can an institution keep tabs on their employees if they are not on campus? Fear based in “what ifs.” This policy comes across as though the institution does not trust the employees that were hired, so this policy allows a type of control (albeit fake control) over its staff. Where is the support for parents in the workplace? Most of all, this puts women at a particular disadvantage.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in parents with young children, there are less mothers likely to participate in the workforce than there are fathers. Mothers who do work and have children make up 72.3% of the workforce. Fathers make up 93.4%.  The gap is not large because mothers simply choose not to work. Since the 1970s, all mothers have increased in the workforce, with those with young children increasing their workforce participation the most. However, problems with workplace policies make it difficult for mothers, as they are still the primary caregivers. Because of this increase, it is necessary to have PAID leave and flexible workdays (i.e. remote work days) in order to be an effective employee and parent.

With an increase of mothers in the workforce, childcare becomes a huge barrier. Quality, affordable childcare is hard to find. Whether it is daycare or before/after school program, a flexible, remote work option benefits parents. COVID-19 made providing flexible work options necessary for employers, but this option should have always existed. Approximately 60% of U.S. parents reported having no one to care for their children when schools and childcare facilities closed because of COVID-19, but what about before that?  In 2016, close to 2 million parents had work-related issues (including having to change jobs) due to childcare and child-related challenges (and this is only for those with children age 6 and under). Because women are still the majority in caring for children, obstacles included changing jobs, working part-time, or working multiple part-time jobs. A flexible workplace policy is greatly needed to better accommodate parents, and COVID-19 is the pandemic tat should allow us to move forward, not backwards.

FSU’s revised policy is a reminder that we have a long way to go in creating and sustaining equitable workplaces that allow employees to be their best instead of trying to fit into a one size fits all working box. Let’s be very clear: the decision for employees in situations such as these won’t be whether to struggle and continue working at FSU (and similar places) or quit work altogether. The decision will simply be where to work after FSU? We’ve got to do better.

*As of July 2, 2020, Florida State has clarified their position on the remote work policy, which is still problematic. You may read about that clarification here.

Keep leading and be safe,

One Comment Add yours

  1. Great article, so needed on many fronts. Employers need to take these points into consideration. Thank you for highlighting these really important factors. In addition to COVID-19, mothers (particularly mothers of color) are struggling with preparing their children for the racial tensions that we face in our nation. It’s a lot!

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