Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Social Costs of the Mommy Track

Flexi-workers are a twist we can ill afford

In the UK, as in the US, flextime is starting to be looked upon as a right, not a privilege. Whatever one thinks of the necessity of such programs to increase the presence of women int he workforce, and to enable parents to properly care for the next generation, no dialogue would be complete without a fair accounting of the costs. Yet the points this article raises about such costs have, until now, been missing from the debate.

There are costs to employers:
Working flexibly is good for families and good for mothers, but it is not good for employers. With the best of goodwill on all sides, flexitime will always cause problems. Some employers may be large enough to bear the inevitable costs and inconveniences. The public services will be protected from such commercial realities by the state and the taxpayer. But that does not change the unpleasant fact that flexible working imposes costs and inefficiencies on almost all employers and the economy as a whole.
To women on the job market:
The lawyer admitted sadly that in her small organisation she could scarcely afford to employ women, no matter how good, no matter how much better than the male applicants; if they disappeared for many months’ maternity leave with the right to return, it was almost impossible to replace them temporarily with a woman or man of the same calibre; why would any such high-flyer accept a temporary job for only a year or so without any security?
To Clients:
The publisher agreed. If a good literary agent disappeared for a year’s maternity leave, she said, her firm didn’t bother dealing with the replacement. It took time and there were so many good agents around; her company would publish books from the other agents. So the literary agency of the woman on leave and the writers she looks after would lose out for at least a year.
And to society as a whole:
For instance, one excellent social worker I contact sometimes about one of her vulnerable clients works only on Thursdays and Fridays. If this client of hers suddenly has a big problem between Monday and Thursday morning, she won’t be available. Someone else may be, but it won’t be someone who knows and understands all the personal details. The costs of handovers between flexi-workers in complicated jobs like these must be astronomical, too.
The article admits that "[a]necdotes such as these are no substitute for argument" but they do present another side of flextime that many have chosen to ignore in the debate.

However good it sounds in theory, in the nasty detail of practice, flexible working all too often imposes a burden on businesses, on standards, on services, on clients and on the economy.

To impose flexible working on employers as a woman’s right and increasingly as a man’s right, too, is yet another step along the road of economic decline. In this light, resentment of flexi-workers doesn’t seem to me to be unreasonable.
Incidentally, although it is illegal in the US to ask about parenthood or plans for children, there is no prohibition against an interviewee volunteering such information. If a childfree woman fears that a small company will, like the lawyer quoted above, be wary of hiring women who might cost them in maternity leave (and, in many cases, lost training cost when the woman goes part time or fails to return) they are free to disclose their childfree status.

To those who might find such a conversation awkward, you can take a volunteer position in a childfree organization, then include it on your resume. This, of course, might cause harm in regions where such choices are socially frowned upon, but in markets such as New York they are apt to do more good than harm.

An interesting note: this article was written by a mother, albeit a freelance writer who never took advantage of such programs.

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Anonymous said...

What I would like to see is if parents are allowed flexible working then all workers should be. And I don't mean simply for caring. It seems doubly unfair that people get these perks simply because they make a choice to have children while those who decide not to have them - and are ironically more flexible - don't have access to these perks,or they are limited. If I can produce the same amount of work by re-jigging my hours and want to take care of a project that's mine, as long as I'm fulfilling the terms of my contract I should have access to flexible hours as well, regardless of my reproductive status or intentions.

Tankadin said...

I was once assigned to a psychiatrist who was so pregnant she looked like she was about to pop. What's the point of establishing rapport with her if she's going to bail on me in a month and not return for a year?

Whenever I have a choice to choose a physician, psychologist, psychiatrist, specialist, social worker, or any person with whom I expect to establish a long-term working relationship, I simply will not use women unless they are clearly past menopause. I've had too many appointments cancelled by mommies.

I realize that flex time is great for individuals, but it is horrible for businesses and customers. Every business should have a set of core hours (say 10am-4pm) during which all employees are expected to be there. They can adjust their schedules around those core hours, perhaps working earlier or later or taking an extended lunch, but they should largely be in the office when everyone else is.