I think, loosely defined, yes more women “opt-out” of the workforce and that does partially explain what is going on at the higher levels of management, but I also agree with the fact that what we see going on in 2020 makes clear why this is happening, and where things could probably change.
“While this time away from work is often portrayed as a choice, the evidence shows that it’s usually a choice reluctantly made. Research has uncovered three major external factors that steer women in this direction: inflexible workplaces, oblivious husbands and bad public policy.”
So, as employers we can’t do much about working fathers, and maybe even not that much about public policy. (Personally, I’d never get involved with telling people how to run their marriages and households anyway, no good can come of that. lol)
On that first factor though, I see this every day, in many industries, including the one I’m in. And this one is going to require some massive change. To quote Sarah:
Interviews with professional women who drop out point to intransigent workplaces as the biggest problem. The U.S. remains a country where only 19% of private-sector workers have access to paid family leave. Many women find their requests for flex time or other post-baby accommodations denied. In time-greedy professions such as law, consulting and finance, a request to work only 40 hours a week can be seen as equivalent to going part time.”
I’m a man with no children. So, working extra hours when the need arises isn’t really an issue. (It’s a mental health and work/life balance issue when it never ends, but when that happens I can choose to go do something else, and we’ve made some progress in recognizing this in many workplaces.) On the other hand, I know, pretty instinctively, that if I put a hard 40 hour limit, or a hard ending of my day at a certain time, no matter what, I’d probably be out of a job. Yet, for people with children, there needs to be a hard cap on the hours spent working. The pandemic creating this home/virtual school issue made this worse, and more obvious, but it’s always been an issue. Lots of workplaces talk a good game about balance and flexibility, but when push comes to shove, most of them will also demand that you figure out your childcare issues on your own time and be available to work in a pinch. So, you login from home all evening and work, and if you’re a single parent, the kids get ignored, or maybe you can find someone else to watch them for you. If there are two parents, you’d better hope you both don’t have those kinds of jobs, because one of you needs to be available for childcare, you can’t both be online working all night.
And, if you have to choose which one leaves that kind of work arrangement, well, in general, women get paid less and have less advancement opportunities, (partially because they are more likely to “opt-out”), so they are going to be the ones to opt out, perpetuating the impression that women make these choices, that are then used to justify not changing the workplace to accommodate working mothers. After all, they’re likely to leave anyway, right?
It’s really quite the little, vicious, circle we’ve made for women in the workplace.
But, it’s not just working mothers. Right now, as I said, the current situation is showing us in very obvious ways, that we make it difficult for parents by demanding much, much more of our employee’s time than is reasonable. Working from home just means that you’re not commuting, so we’re expecting people to work 7AM-6PM instead of 8-5. Or at least be available for that extra time they aren’t commuting, right? And then, of course, if our needs bleed past even 6, well that’s the same as needing people after 5 in the office, right?
And lunch hours? Who needs ’em? Grab a bite to eat and take it back to your laptop while you work.
Now, none of these seem like major encroachments, but enough of these while you’re also trying to have some sort of life outside of work? Yeah, they add up. As you know, I am a big fan of remote work, but this is the one area that many struggle with, and that is finding a way to divide work from home. That is hard to do, but it’s made even harder by the fact that our employees also don’t seem to understand that there needs to be a separation. The work day needs to have a start, and an end. When it’s unclear that my work day is actually going to end at some point, it becomes very difficult to plan anything else. Mothers who need to plan childcare are feeling this pinch because they don’t have any other choice. But the rest of us will also, at some point, start to feel this same pinch. And some of us will opt out because being available to work 10-12 hours of every day, is not sustainable to the rest of our lives.
There’s a lot of discussion, needed discussion, about diversity in the workplace, and the lack thereof. There is no point in having that discussion if we don’t include the fact that for many professions, there’s really only one “type” of employee who fits, the one who can be available at the drop of a hat at any hour of the day. We might be able to nibble around the edges of diversity within that group, but it’s not a truly diverse group of people. It excludes too many people with a different life experience, different priorities, and different responsibilities. We are absolutely leaving them out.
Working mothers is just the most recent, and obvious, wave, because everyone else has already been left out.