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Chapter Three: Open Flexible Work

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Chapter Three:

O: Open Flexible Work

Outdoor speakers blared Top 40 hits ranging from U2’s “Vertigo” to Hilary Duff’s sugary pop grooves as school children walked laps, laps, and more laps around a ribbonmarked field. With music in the air, the sun shining down on her shoulders, and purple pen in hand, Dr. Jennifer Stone bounced to the beat while leaning over to check off laps on children’s jerseys as they successfully completed another round. It was the annual walk-a-thon to raise money for the elementary school and Dr. Stone was volunteering.

This is the same Dr. Stone who enters a four-story brick building through double white doors each and every weekday morning, who thrives in an environment of calm efficiency. Dr. Stone, volunteer and mom, also has a Ph.D. in neuroanatomy, and works as a researcher and professor in the field of otolaryngology (ear, nose, and throat medicine) at the University of Washington

Her office, neatly lined with books and scientific journals from nearly floor to ceiling, serves as a work base. An overcrowded desk is tucked into a corner topped with a computer as well as pictures of her daughters and husband, which provide bright spots in the organized chaos of academia.

During the day, Dr. Stone moves effortlessly from hi-tech digital compound microscope, to autoclave, to sectioning stations where developing chicken ears are sliced paper thin, to viral injection stations where genetic modifications on chicken embryos begin. She studies how chickens regenerate the tiny hair cells in the inner ear that are integral to hearing. Dr. Stone is searching for a way to replicate that regeneration in humans who, once those particular cells are damaged, lose hearing permanently.

Dr. Stone is a mother of two, Rebecca, age five, and Olivia, age six.

While regularly working more than 40 hours per week, Dr. Stone can also be found at school performances, baseball practice, the annual field day, jump rope shows, and, of course, walk-athons. An active, engaged mother, Dr. Stone engineered a flextime job structure that works for her and her family.

Flextime Misconceptions

The primary myth surrounding flextime is that it always means part-time or reduced hour jobs. Not so. One of the most important types of flextime is flexibility in the time worked during the day. In fact, that very type of flextime was listed as one of the top ways for companies to “accommodate the nonlinear realities of women’s work lives” in an extensive March 2005 Harvard Business Review research report.

”I basically work from 9:30 A.M. until 4:30 P.M. and then at least two hours again at night after the kids go to bed,” she explains. When she takes time out during the day for school or other family activities, Dr. Stone makes up that time before or after her regular lab and office hours—often in the dark, early mornings or late, late nights. In the end, “Like most in the sciences, I work a lot more than 40 hours per week. There’s a lot of pressure to be on top of the literature, to be writing and publishing journal articles about research, so there’s no way I could be part-time, though I do have the flexibility to work anytime I want.”

A survey of working women reported in the Harvard Business Review confirms that Dr. Stone isn’t the only mom placing work flexibility as a high priority: the majority of women surveyed (64 percent) reported flexible work arrangements as “either extremely or very important to them.” The survey also found that “by a considerable margin, highly qualified women find flexibility more important than compensation; only 42 percent say that ‘earning a lot of money’ is an important motivator.”

Highly qualified and generally fairly well paid women are the most likely to find or demand flexible schedules. Women with low income jobs also need flexibility, yet are the least likely to have flexible work options—these are also the very moms who are more likely to struggle with access to affordable childcare, and who are least likely to have paid family or other leave.

Better Solutions For All

A survey of highly qualified working women for a Harvard Business Review study found that 43 percent of highly qualified working women who have children took time out of the workforce to care for family members. Of these women, 93 percent want to return to their careers. Not only do women take a wage hit for leaving the workplace, businesses end up taking big monetary hits in retraining and hiring costs. Both businesses and families benefit when policies that allow parents to successfully juggle work and family are in place.

Low income jobs are often rigidly confined by the clock. One single mother of two children under five-years-old had a horrible experience with an inflexible schedule. She worked the night shift at a psychiatric center in upstate New York and had a sitter watch her children at night. Her supervisor requested that she work mandatory overtime with a fair degree of regularity, and she frequently was only given a couple of hours notice. She simply couldn’t do it.

To make a long story short: She couldn’t work the overtime because her sitter also had a day job. After saying no twice and getting cited for misconduct (even though she said she could work a partial shift or bring her children in to sleep at work), she was fired. Her union took up the cause and got her job back. The arbitrator commented, “No person should be forced to choose between his children or his livelihood” and worked out a deal where she was fined $1.00 for technical insubordination, retained her job, and ordered her to give her employer thirty days notice of three days each month that she would work an overtime shift. This small increase of flexibility in scheduling made the critical difference that allowed her to keep the job that supported her two growing children. It also gave her employer three dependable overtime shifts each month.

From the highly paid to those making minimum wage, far too few women in America have flexible work options—almost three-fourths of working adults state they don’t control their work schedules. In fact, the top reason noted by highly educated and trained women for leaving the “fast track” is the lack of family time. The lack of flexible work options often leads women to quit needed jobs.

This is a problem because most families need two working parents to support their family, many women want and need to continue their careers, and when women take time out of the workforce they face huge wage hits, or pay cuts, when they later return (as 74 percent do within two years). These wage hits take a life-long toll: On average, women take an 18 percent cut in their pay, a significant wage hit, for an average of 2.2 years out of the labor force—with women in business sectors taking an increased hit of 28 percent. For those women who stay out of the labor force for three or more years, the news is even bleaker: A 37 percent loss of earning power.

Even after women come back into the workforce, the wage hits, which do get smaller over time, still persist for decades. This is a tremendous economic burden, which not only impacts women’s ability to support their family, but also impacts future retirement because of lost income, and as Ann Crittenden writes, “a college-educated woman with one child can easily pay a “Mommy tax’ (lost lifetime earnings) of $1 million.”

The Myth of the "Ideal" Worker

Most employers organize work “around the ideal worker who works full-time and takes little or no time off for childbearing or childrearing,” writes Joan Williams in her groundbreaking book Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It. This “ideal worker” is expected to work 60 hours per week without questions, be available on short notice, and travel as needed. The “ideal” worker expectation is unrealistic for many working parents who have parental responsibilities.

Widespread implementation of workplace flextime policies will go a long way towards helping women maintain viable careers and remain economically stable while having families. Businesses also benefit with higher employee retention, lower training and recruiting costs, and better employee performance.

With a looming labor crunch many businesses are also looking for ways to retain employees. With this in mind, the Harvard report details some solutions for businesses to keep talented women in the workforce: “Reduced-hour jobs, flexible work-days, and removal of off-ramping’s stigma are just a few strategies.”

Detect a theme here? Flexibility.

Work flexibility is sometimes difficult to quickly explain because it is, in and of itself, flexible. Flexible work options can vary depending on employer and employee needs. Some options include having a set number of weekly hours that can be worked whenever the employee schedules the time; part-time work; compressed work weeks; telecommuting or working from home; being able to choose work shifts; and more. Studies show flextime allows for a more balanced life and productive workplace.

Like many parents, Dr. Stone finds that flextime actually makes her better at her job by allowing her to more successfully juggle work and family. “Kids have given me the best incentive to be on top of my busy schedule. I do a lot more planning and manage my calendar more aggressively. Without this increased organization I wouldn’t have quality time with my family, so in a sense the family has motivated the organization, and the benefits from that organization have fed into my work.”

The notion of the “ideal” worker, who can be at the office from 9 A.M.–6 P.M. or 9 A.M.–7 P.M. (or later) every day of the week and can travel at a moment’s notice, simply doesn’t take into account the needs of contemporary mothers, families, and children. It’s not always a question of working fewer hours, but it is also a question of working smarter hours that are conducive to the demands of career, family, and business. Rather than forcing mothers to conform to schedules that are often incompatible with the demands of child rearing, flexible work options allow parents to create work schedules that are well suited to raising happy, healthy children.