Pushing the Part-Time Envelope

Judith Warner, a guest op-ed columnist for the New York Times, last week reflected on the Pew Research Center's recent survey on working moms' desire for part-time jobs. (See my blog on the Pew survey here.) Warner pushes the part-time envelope:

But the conversation we should be having these days really isn't one about What Mothers Want. (This has been known for years; surveys dating back to the early 1990s have shown that up to 80 percent of mothers -- working and at-home alike -- consistently say they wish they could work part time.) The interesting question is, rather, why they're not getting it.

She points to a reason why: part-time pay is skimpy.

So how can the situation be fixed?

Bending Toward Flexibility

Warner offers a few potential solutions, including universal health care, and flexibility legislation, such as that being touted by Sen. Edward Kennedy and Rep. Carolyn Maloney.

Flexibility is a good place to start (see my previous posts on flexibility here and here). And it's not just working moms who would stand to gain. The generations at work right now--including baby boomers and Generations X and Y--are proponents of flexible work. A post on the Women's Initiative Blog supports this notion:

A while back I took some time to really think through the issue of flexibility in the workplace. Thinking squarely, at the time, that flexibility was predominantly a women’s issue, it seemed like a good thing to tackle given my role in leading our women’s initiative. Well, it didn’t take long to figure out that flexibility is not a women’s issue. Nope. It’s a people issue and comes in all genders, shapes and sizes. Women, as it turns out, just happen to be the canaries in the corporate coal mine on the topic. To briefly sum up the findings:  the workforce has changed—a lot—while the workplace has not.

We certainly have the technology to support a flexible workplace and productive workers. Blackberries, laptops, and Apple iPhones, for example, can help diligent, focused employees get the job done wherever--from a terminal at Chicago O'Hare to a Rocky Mountain village to their in-laws' living room.

Employers need to be part of the flexibility discussion, which seems to be gathering steam by the week. One employer that's joined the fray is Deloitte & Touche, recently publishing a survey showing that flexibility promotes job satisfaction among employees and leads to an ethical culture in the workplace.  (The Women's Initiative Blog is part of Deloitte.)

There's no quick fix, of course. But if everyone gets involved--lawmakers, employers, workers--if the conversations are thoughtful, if everyone works toward crafting a common goal ... then we might be on the road to a more flexible future.

A Starting Line

In explaining her support for universal health care and the draft bill on flexibility, Judith Warner writes:

I think that when it comes to setting priorities for (currently nonexistent) American work-family policy, we ought to go for the greatest good for the greatest number.

The place to start, ideally, would be universal health care, which is really the necessary condition for making freedom of choice a reality for working parents. European-style regulations outlawing wage and benefit discrimination against part-time workers would be nice, too, though it's not a terribly realistic goal for the U.S., where even unpaid family leave is still a hot-button issue for employers.

A British-style ''soft touch'' law could, however, be within the realm of the possible. Senator Edward Kennedy and Representative Carolyn Maloney are circulating draft legislation modeled on the British workplace flexibility law that would give employees -- all workers, not just moms or parents -- the right to request a flexible schedule. The legislation -- which would require employers to discuss flexibility with workers who request it, but wouldn't require them to honor the requests -- has a little bit of something for everyone: protection from retaliation for workers who fear letting on that they're eager to cut back, protection from ''unfunded mandates'' for businesses.

Critics might say the proposed legislation's touch is so soft as to be almost imperceptible, but it's a start. At the very least, it's a chance to stop emoting about maternal love and war and guilt and have a productive conversation.

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