Employees Seeking Work/Life Balance Encounter Bias

By Kathy Gurchiek Apr 20, 2007

Workers are struggling to achieve work/life balance but often find themselves pitted against employers whose policies tend to favor employees who have some control over their schedules, white women over women of color, mothers over fathers, and non-mothers over pregnant and new mothers.

That was the message from experts invited to give their “Perspectives on Work/Family Balance and the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Laws” during a public meeting of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington, D.C., on April 17, 2007.

“Fortunately, many employers have recognized employees’ need to balance work and family, and companies have responded in very positive and creative ways,” EEOC Vice Chair Leslie Silverman said at the opening of the meeting.

“Unfortunately, not all caregivers work in hospitable environments. We hear from caregivers who face barriers, stereotyping and unequal treatment on the job.”

The intent of the panels, she said, was to give the commission an opportunity to “examine work/life issues through the lens” of the federal anti-discrimination laws it enforces.

What it heard was that achieving such a balance is a problem for the majority of the U.S. workforce, and that when it is not handled properly by employers it can result in workplace discrimination.

One of the problems, according to Heather Boushey, senior economist for the Center for Economic and Policy Research, is that most employers continue to act as if workers have a full-time spouse at home to care for children, other relatives, or both.

“Women work because their families need their income,” she said, and single mothers often don’t receive child support. “Women and mothers are in the labor force to stay.”

Typically in two-parent families, both parents work and provide care for their children, Boushey said, pointing out that many workers also care for elderly parents or relatives.

Finding adequate care for children and other family members, she said, is “often made more daunting by the inflexibility of the workplace.”

Achieving a work/life balance is difficult whether the worker has a low income or a high one, Boushey noted.

Control of Schedule Is Issue

Any worker with care-giving responsibilities needs time off to handle unanticipated events, such as a sick child or parent-teacher conference, but workplace flexibility more often is offered to workers who have some control over their schedules and denied to less-skilled or hourly employees, she said.

For women with advanced degrees, such as lawyers and doctors, often there are no part-time or flexible jobs available in their organization or, if available, these jobs limit their ability to progress alongside male co-workers, she said.

She noted that many workers are likely to indicate that their employer has a flexible workplace policy but they cannot use it or fear repercussions, such as being viewed as on the stunted “mommy track.”

In written comments, she suggested requiring employers to give workers the option of requesting a flexible schedule, similar to what is provided under legislation in the United Kingdom.

“Then it would not be the exceptional employer who provides flexibility” by offering paid sick days and extended health or maternity leave to all its workers. “The workplace must begin to recognize that workers with care responsibilities are no longer the exception.”

Some women of color believe that their supervisors treat them differently than their white female colleagues when they request leave to participate in a child’s extracurricular activity, said Jennifer Tucker, vice president for the Center for Women Policy Studies, a multiethnic and multicultural feminist policy organization that conducted a National Women of Color Work/Life survey in 16 Fortune 1,000 companies.

For these women, workplace stress comes not only from excessive workloads and an unspoken message to work long hours “but also of work/life conflicts and unsupportive managers” and uncomfortable work environments, Tucker said.

Men also need their employers’ support when it comes to handling work/life balance, said Elizabeth Grossman, regional attorney for the EEOC’s New York District Office.

For example, unlike their female colleagues, “men are not getting time to leave early to pick up their kids from child care,” she said.

She noted several current charges her office is investigating where workers who requested a flexible work schedule for child care purposes claim their requests were denied while other employees were granted flexible schedules for other reasons.

She addressed what she said is an emerging national trend of an increase in discrimination charges and lawsuits against employers toward workers who request a work/family balance.

“I’m very concerned that pregnancy discrimination is getting more subtle,” she said.

Increased and better public outreach, increased training of EEOC field investigators, and even improving on the EEOC’s own materials were among her suggestions to the commission.

“We need to continue to increase our outreach efforts to make the public as aware of these issues as possible,” she said.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at kgurchiek@shrm.org


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