Reduction of Family-Friendly Job Benefits Hurts Working Women Most

New mothers (and fathers) should be honored, not punished, for their choice to raise a family.

By + More

Family-friendly workplace benefits (flex time, job sharing, telecommuting, and so on) were on the rise before the recession of 2008 took hold. I've been wondering recently how bad a whacking this category of benefits has taken. Of course, most surveys find companies cutting family-friendly benefits, just like all other benefits, in economic down times. If you were a manager, would you rather lose a person or cut that person's benefits? It's a rather easy decision.

But family-friendly benefits, unlike health insurance or vacation pay or pensions, don't necessarily cost companies money. In fact, in many cases they may save them money. So the question as we emerge from this recession is, once rehiring starts taking place, whether in 2010 or beyond, will flex time be more or less available? The answer is, it will be more available, but not, perhaps, in the way it is desired. Some studies are showing part-time and temporary contract work may be the norm rather than the exception as companies start rehiring in a big way. According to Scripps News:

A recent study by Washington, D.C.-based law firm Littler Mendelson P.C. found this trend will become more of a norm as employers start hiring again. The study found that as many as half the workers hired after the recession's aftereffects are over will be contract workers, on a "project-specific" basis.

Littler Mendelson, which specializes in work force law and represents employers, expanded on opinions reached in the mid-1990s by MIT's Sloan School of Management, which suggested major changes in the way the work force will be configured by 2015.

Some workplace experts don't see that as such a bad thing. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, writing over the weekend in the New York Times, sees time off as the new currency demanded by young, educated, two-parent families. And employers will use this new currency by setting up employment arrangements that work for both sides (cutting employers' costs and giving employees more free time). According to Hewlett:

Longer workweeks and the disappearance of flex time have been particularly tough on women. Men have been disproportionately clobbered by layoffs in the current crisis, and women have had no choice but to pick up the slack.

From 2004 to 2009 there was a 28 percent increase in the number of professional women with nonworking husbands (unemployed or retired), according to a new survey done by the Center for Work-Life Policy, an organization I founded and where I lead a private-sector task force called Hidden Brain Drain.

What is more, the percentage of full-time working women who out-earn their husbands has reached 39 percent. A central problem, of course, is that as more wives and mothers step into the prime breadwinning role, they continue to shoulder a disproportionate load of domestic responsibility.

I wish I were as jovial about these changes as Ms. Hewlett. First, while they may still allow some part-time high income workers to work part time and earn a reasonable income, they won't help low-income workers at all. She closes by adding:

When a 35-year-old high-performing woman who happens to be a new mother can scale back to a four-day week and be honored for that choice rather than being written off, we're on our way to a different future.

I read her close and said, "Wait a minute!!" I'd rephrase her close to say, "When a 35-year-old high-performing employee who happens to be a new parent can scale back to a four-day week and be honored for that choice rather than being written off, we're on our way to a different future." If only new mothers make that choice, those mothers will never achieve parity in corporations. If men start making those choices in equal numbers, that's a different story AND a different future.