OP-ED: How work-life programs stall women’s careers, pay
Every working mother knows the feeling: The clock ticks toward the top of the hour, the hour being the moment when you officially are off that clock.
The meeting drags on. You must leave when you intend to leave because you have to pick up your children and you can’t be late. You’re on a flexible schedule and everyone in the meeting knows it. Yet, people keep talking and the meeting keeps meeting and the clock keeps ticking and pretty soon you’re going to have to walk out.
What if walking out means undermining your relationship with your boss, even though your employer regularly ballyhoos its commitment to flexible hours? What if your departure is translated by the others in the room to mean that you are not serious about your job, not ambitious and not ready for that next promotion and raise?
The gender pay gap in America is well documented. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, women who work full time, year-round, make 80.5 percent of what men earn for the same effort.
Much of the pay gap is structural. Women are scarce in the upper echelons of the workplace. People in upper echelons make more money. When those people are men, that means that more men than women make big bucks. When women tend to plateau at the middle and lower levels, they plateau in terms of money as well as power. Because women are underrepresented in high-paying top jobs, the pay gap is hard-wired into many employers’ organizational charts.
That is why employers offer work-life programs intended to help women stay on track during the intense caregiving years. Working full time, but with flexible hours, or virtually, or both, can reconcile conflicts between caregiving and career.
While work-life benefits were originally conceived to offset the demands of caring for young children, such programs are now relevant for the 43.5 million Americans who are unpaid caregivers for others of any age.
Analysis by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that women earn less as their childrearing responsibilities escalate. While women earn less from the start, the gap becomes a chasm for women in their 30s. By about age 37, women with college degrees start to earn less than men without college degrees. And they fall so far behind they cannot catch up, potentially undermining their lifelong economic security.
Caregiving, it turns out, is a way of life, not a stage of life, for many women. When child care is replaced by elder care, work-life programs become essential for women to advance and earn more as they gain skills and experience.
Money that women don’t earn in mid-career is money they can’t save for their retirements. When women sideline their ambitions, employers lose out on their potential to win and keep clients, drive growth, and innovate new products and services.
That’s why women and employers need to be sure that work-life programs don’t turn into career cul-de-sacs. In the process of researching workplace programs intended to advance women, I talk annually with hundreds of women who are navigating work-life and career decisions. Often, they say that they feel that they have to let their compensation coast lest their employers force them to choose between work-life programs and promotions that come with bigger paychecks.
It’s a false choice: forfeit market-rate pay to protect your work-life benefits or sacrifice daily work-life balance for more income to support your family.
The other day, I caught up with Julie Figueras, a partner with accounting and advisory firm Grant Thornton, which is based in Chicago. She told me how she took full advantage of the firm’s flexible work schedule while having her five children — and still had to talk herself onto the partner track numerous times when daily responsibilities threatened to swamp her. But being a good mom is about providing financially as well as being at school events, which is why Figueras reminded herself that the top level of a profession can be lucrative. By sticking it out through the chaos, she’d have money to achieve her ambitions for her family.
Flexible work must not come at the price of equitable pay.
Employers need to analyze pay equity not just by gender and tenure, but also by work arrangement. They just might find, as many have, that women quietly stop pursuing promotions for fear of upsetting the balance they’ve crafted with work-life programs. And, women and bosses need to view work-life programs not as concession but as a power tool that enables women to drive for better results at home and at work.
The more that employers and women evaluate both in context, the better they will understand the tradeoffs that women shouldn’t have to make. Women shouldn’t have to choose between their money and their lives.
— Joanne Cleaver is a communication consultant who manages industry research projects that measure and support the advancement of women and diverse staff.