How to close the work­place gen­der gap

Let em­ploy­ees, es­pe­cially women, con­trol their sched­ules

The Hamilton Spectator - - CAREERS - CLAIRE CAIN MILLER

The main rea­son for the gen­der gaps at work — why women are paid less, why they’re less likely to reach the top lev­els of com­pa­nies, and why they’re more likely to stop work­ing af­ter hav­ing chil­dren — is em­ploy­ers’ ex­pec­ta­tion that peo­ple spend long hours at their desks, re­search has shown.

It’s es­pe­cially dif­fi­cult for women be­cause they have dis­pro­por­tion­ate re­spon­si­bil­ity for care­giv­ing.

Flex­i­bil­ity re­gard­ing the time and place that work gets done would go a long way to­ward clos­ing the gaps, economists say. Yet when peo­ple ask for it, es­pe­cially par­ents, they can be pe­nal­ized in pay and pro­mo­tions. So­cial sci­en­tists call it the flex­i­bil­ity stigma, and it’s the rea­son that even when com­pa­nies of­fer such poli­cies, they’re not widely used.

A new job search com­pany, Werk, is try­ing to ad­dress the prob­lem by ne­go­ti­at­ing for flex­i­bil­ity with em­ploy­ers be­fore post­ing jobs, so em­ploy­ees don’t have to.

All the po­si­tions listed on the Werk site, in­clud­ing some from Face­book, Uber and Sam­sung, are highly skilled jobs that of­fer some sort of con­trol over the time and place of work. Peo­ple can ap­ply to jobs that let them work away from the of­fice all the time or some of the time, and at hours other than 9-to-5, part time or with min­i­mal travel.

An­other op­tion gives work­ers the free­dom to ad­just their sched­ules, no ques­tions asked, be­cause of un­pre­dictable obli­ga­tions, like a sleep­less night with a tod­dler or a trip to the emer­gency room with an older par­ent.

“No­body wants to be the fe­male in the de­part­ment who says, ‘My kid threw up on me this morn­ing; I can’t come in,’” said An­nie Dean, who worked as a lawyer be­fore start­ing Werk with Anna Auer­bach, a former con­sul­tant. “Eighty per cent of com­pa­nies say they of­fer flex­i­bil­ity, but it’s a black mar­ket topic. You raise it and you’re not taken se­ri­ously.”

For now, Werk is a limited ex­per­i­ment. Most of the em­ploy­ers are small com­pa­nies, and it is aimed at an elite group of women — highly ed­u­cated and on a lead­er­ship track. But it could pro­vide lessons for how to im­prove work and make it more equal for a broader group.

Women who have less ed­u­ca­tion or are paid hourly wages have sig­nif­i­cantly less flex­i­bil­ity than pro­fes­sional women to be­gin with. It makes work­ing and care­giv­ing that much harder.

Moth­er­hood presents a dif­fer­ent chal­lenge for the elite women that Werk was made for. The ca­reers that pay the most and re­quire the most ed­u­ca­tion, like busi­ness and law, also have the most gen­der in­equal­ity. Why? Economists have found it’s a re­sult of the long hours and limited flex­i­bil­ity. When ed­u­cated moth­ers leave their jobs, it’s of­ten be­cause they feel pushed out by in­flex­i­ble em­ploy­ers, ac­cord­ing to so­ci­ol­o­gists.

It’s a big rea­son the top of cor­po­rate Amer­ica is still so male; 4 per cent of the chief ex­ec­u­tives of com­pa­nies in the S&P 500 are women. “They want top lead­er­ship roles,” said Dean, who thought of the idea for Werk with Auer­bach af­ter they each had chil­dren. “The only rea­son they’re not get­ting there is they’re go­ing through this phase in their life where work­ing 16 hours at a sin­gle desk is in­com­pat­i­ble with their life.”

Seventy per­cent of work­ing moth­ers say hav­ing a flex­i­ble work sched­ule is ex­tremely im­por­tant to them, ac­cord­ing to a Pew sur­vey. So do 48 per­cent of work­ing fa­thers.

Work­place flex­i­bil­ity re­duces turnover and work-fam­ily con­flict, ac­cord­ing to much of the re­search, in­clud­ing a study by 10 re­searchers from seven uni­ver­si­ties pub­lished in De­cem­ber.

Yet when peo­ple get flex­i­ble work ar­range­ments, they’re gen­er­ally iso­lated cases — for long­time em­ploy­ees whom com­pa­nies trust and don’t want to lose.

Erin Fahs turned to Werk af­ter her hus­band was trans­ferred to Fort My­ers, Florida, and she needed to find a new job. She wanted to work part time and from home be­cause she was preg­nant and the pri­mary care­giver for their 2-year-old daugh­ter. She found three jobs on Werk that would let her do that, and took one as the busi­ness man­ager for the Col­lec­tive Good, which does con­sult­ing for non­prof­its.

“Get­ting to have those di­rect con­versa- tions with the CEO about what mat­ters made it so much dif­fer­ent from when I was ap­ply­ing for jobs ear­lier in my ca­reer,” Fahs, 33, said.

She has a baby sit­ter 10 hours a week and works the other 10 hours when her daugh­ter is sleep­ing. She has a few set meet­ings, which she at­tends via Google Hangouts — and gives her daugh­ter an iPad for a di­ver­sion if there is a work emer­gency. She plans to ex­pand to full-time work af­ter ma­ter­nity leave.

This type of flex­i­bil­ity, while valu­able, would not mag­i­cally solve work­place prob­lems. For one, any so­lu­tion would need to be for both women and men. Some jobs have to be done at a cer­tain time and place, like teach­ing and food ser­vice. And even at com­pa­nies where it’s pos­si­ble to let em­ploy­ees work at the time and place of their choos­ing, a dif­fer­ent type of man­ager is re­quired. Best Buy tried it for cor­po­rate em­ploy­ees, then re­voked it.

AN­GEL VALENTIN, NEW YORK TIMES

Erin Fahs uses her com­puter for a con­fer­ence call for her job, at her home in Fort My­ers, Fla.

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