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Work-life balance isn’t just a women’s issue

Posted by Carol Rose, On Liberty  June 27, 2012 04:26 PM

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Millions of people – literally – are reading and talking about the Atlantic Monthly article by Princeton Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, entitled, "Why Women Still Can't Have it All," which makes the case that powerful women who think that they can “have it all” are being kept from reaching the upper echelons of power due to structural barriers that make it hard to achieve a work-life balance.

Whatever you think of Slaughter’s thesis, she obviously hit a nerve in our collective zeitgeist: when was the last time so many people were buzzing about a 12,000-word magazine piece?

Even my 85-year-old mother called to talk about it. As a contemporary of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, Mom has strong opinions about equal rights for women. So I was struck by her response to the article: “It’s time we brought men into this conversation.”

She’s right, of course. Equal opportunity is as much about men as it is about women.

I’d go one step further: achieving work-life balance isn’t just about accommodating people with children – it’s about creating a work- life balance for all of us.

Full disclosure: Anne-Marie Slaughter is a friend and professional mentor. No doubt that is why she mentions the ACLU Foundation of Massachusetts, where I am executive director, and praises our efforts to adopt workplace models that make it possible for everyone – women and men alike – to achieve both professional success and personal fulfillment. Here's the excerpt:

Changes in default office rules should not advantage parents over other workers; indeed, done right, they can improve relations among co-workers by raising their awareness of each other’s circumstances and instilling a sense of fairness. Two years ago, the ACLU Foundation of Massachusetts decided to replace its “parental leave” policy with a “family leave” policy that provides for as much as 12 weeks of leave not only for new parents, but also for employees who need to care for a spouse, child, or parent with a serious health condition. According to Director Carol Rose, “We wanted a policy that took into account the fact that even employees who do not have children have family obligations.” The policy was shaped by the belief that giving women “special treatment” can “backfire if the broader norms shaping the behavior of all employees do not change.”

So, here’s my question: can we stop talking about this as a women’s issue?

I have plenty of men on my staff who want and deserve the chance to be good fathers without sacrificing professional opportunities for advancement. They need flex time to pick up their children from school and permission to work from home in order to attend the mid-day parent-teacher conference or school play.

Nor is this strictly a parenting issue. My staff includes plenty of childless people who also benefit from time off to care for their families in times of need, even if they define their family as a spouse, partner, or parent. “Why should ‘breeders’ have more rights than other people?” they ask. These people, too, need flex-time to take a spouse to medical appointments or family leave to care for an ailing parent.

In short, all people benefit from policies that enable us to excel in both our personal and professional lives. In return, employers benefit from increased productivity and employee loyalty.

But equality of opportunity in the work place, as well as the halls of power, will only happen when we make flextime, family leave, and telecommuting available to everyone – not just mothers. It’s analogous to FDR’s decision to make Social Security available to rich and poor Americans alike. He knew that political support and public funding for this critical social safety net would dry up if Social Security was available only to poor people. Because everyone gets Social Security, regardless of need, the program is wildly popular and generally has been spared the financial axe.

The same is true for policies that promote flex time, telecommuting, and family leave. If such work-life policies are available to all employees – men and women, alike, as well as employees who don’t have children – these policies will become part of the fabric of the American work-place for all people, not special deals available only to women or parents of small children.

It comes down to equal rights. Just as women and men should be equally compensated for comparable work, so, too, should men and women have equal rights when it comes to flex time and family leave, as should parents and those who elect not to rear children.

To be sure, running a state-wide civil rights and civil liberties organization doesn’t come with the same level of influence – or require the same level of sacrifice – as being in the top echelons of the State Department. Still, as a boss, I have the flexibility to take care of my family and also excel at my job. But being a boss also imposes on me an opportunity and obligation to ensure that all of my employees have an equal chance to “have it all” -- a good job and a healthy family.

At a time when most families require two incomes to make ends meet, it’s time to make the changes we want to see in the workplace – from the highest levels of government and corporate America down to the laborers who keep our economy moving.

But let’s not pretend it's for the benefit of women alone. All people deserve the chance to take care of their families and succeed in their jobs. Adopting structural changes to make that possible is good for business, good for government, and good for America.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Carol Rose is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. A lawyer and journalist, Carol has spent her career working for and writing about human rights and civil liberties, both in the United States and abroad. More »

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