Wednesday, August 29, 2007

FT- Motherhood & Work

The high price of motherhood at work
Today’s Mums and Dads seem to think they have a fundamental human right to be parents and employees – including the inalienable right to work only until school lets out, without ever missing a promotion.

Increasingly, US courts and juries are siding with them, feeding a whole new breed of job discrimination lawsuit: litigation over "family responsibility discrimination".
. . .
US workers who care for dependants - from the new baby to the senile Grandma to the nephew with autism - are suing their employers much more frequently than before. . .

The EEOC makes clear that penalising caregivers is not always illegal: companies can refuse to promote everyone with young children - so long as they punish Mums and Dads equally (and not just women, who are a protected class under federal job discrimination law).

Except that mothers and fathers do not, on average behave differently. There is still a huge gap between the parenting roles that men and women typically take on.
The crux of the problem, says the EEOC, is stereotyping: the boss is not allowed to make employment decisions based on how he thinks a caregiver will (or for that matter, should) behave, but on how they do the job.

That is fair enough, as long as we are careful where we draw the line. A pattern of employment practices that appears to favor men may be based not on stereotypes, but on the realities of our culture, parenting, and the workplace.
Laurie Chadwick says she is the victim of stereotyping: the Maine woman claims she was denied a promotion at a health insurance company because her employer assumed that, as a mother of four children including six-year-old triplets, who was also studying for a university degree, she had "too much on her plate". . .

No boss should be allowed to tell a Mum in advance that she has "too much on her plate": but if she repeatedly fails to do her job because she has too many kids, or too few babysitters, she should not expect childless colleagues to pick up all the slack all the time. The laws of discrimination have not totally suspended the laws of economics. There is no fundamental human right to be a Mum in the workplace.

I think the author makes a good point here. It would seem that employers can best protect themselves by not acting preventively, but by waiting for a problem to arise before making these decisions. There is a real cost to this, especially in the reduced productivity one has to wait through before the case is clear and another employee can be found. But when the stakes are high - not just of litigation but of losing good workers based on false assumptions - this may be a price businesses have to pay. It also seems to satisfy basic fairness.

I can only hope the courts will police this line objectively, and not inject society's general pro-natalism into the proceedings. A blurring of the lines between roles and behavior that forces companies to keep on failing childed workers will result in a court-created business-funded welfare system.

Unfortunately, the full text is not available to non-subscribers. I have excerpted relevant portions here under fair use laws in order to incorporate my own commentary from a childfree perspective, in the creation of a new work.

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