If you’re an employer, is offering special benefits and supports to your working parents right now, during this pandemic, unfair? Or fair? And is that even a fair question?
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been having conversations with many employers about programming for their working parent employee populations. As organizations think about rolling out the workshops and coaching Mindful Return offers, they often come to me with a caveat. You know, the one that goes: “We really do think it’s important to help our parents right now. We see that they’re suffering. But we need to make sure we don’t appear to be favoring one group over another. We don’t want to be perceived as unfair to people without children. We’re sure you understand.”
These leaders are keenly aware of the response they’re likely to get from a subset of their employee population. One professional development manager told me that the moment he rolled out the schedule of parent-related programming, he started getting calls from people without children. “What about me?”, they asked. (“You should thank your lucky stars you don’t have small children at home right now,” he said he wanted to tell them. But bit his tongue.)
These conversations gave me flashbacks. I remember being required to wait 9-12 months before being permitted to launch a working parent group. Why? Because the firm had just announced improved paid parental leave policies, and launching a group to support parents on the heels of such a policy change would have been perceived as doing “too much” to help parents. That it would be “unfair” to employees without children.
When I came back from maternity leave and was granted the opportunity to work from home every Friday, I remember being told by a colleague who did not have children that it was “unfair” that I was allowed to work from home one day a week, “simply because I had a child.” I asked if she had ever requested a day from home. Turns out she hadn’t, and that once she asked, her request was also granted with no questions asked.
So while these fairness arguments aren’t new, they’re certainly amplified right now. I had already been planning a blog post explaining why there’s nothing unfair about helping working parents right now. And then this New York Times article came out last weekend, and I exploded in rage at the keyboard: Parents Got More Time Off: Then the Backlash Started. I simply had to respond to the criticism that helping parents right now is unfair.
As a threshold matter, I’ll start by saying that I hate comparing levels of misery. Hard is hard. Suffering is suffering. And we’re all doing a lot of it right now.
Many people without children at home are isolated. Working harder than ever. And burned out. Yes, they need help. We all do.
AND STILL. There is one group struggling mightily and in a brand new way, that directly affects the workplace and our ability to be productive. That’s people with child care responsibilities. Notice I didn’t say “parent” here. Yes, I’ll use the term “parent” below for simplicity’s sake, but let’s acknowledge that the term is overbroad.
You can be a parent to two children in their 30’s who don’t live at home anymore, and not have the added strains of 24/7 childcare and education right now. You might be a parent with small children at home whose partner doesn’t have an income-earning job and takes care of everything child-related. In this instance, you may be clocking more work hours than ever before.
And on the other hand, you may not be a biological or adopted parent, but you may be the sole provider of childcare for a family member or friend.
It’s the individuals who have unexpected and overwhelming childcare obligations right now who are in dire need of urgent support. They are the individuals most at risk of leaving the workplace altogether. (See Survey: Half of working parents say they won’t go back to work if there’s no in person schooling this year.)
Is It Unfair to Help Employees Through a National Disaster?
Perhaps the most compelling argument I’ve seen for providing additional support to parents right now is the incredibly apt analogy to a natural disaster that strikes a portion of an employee population. Can anyone deny that COVID is an unexpected disaster of epic proportions?
Here’s a beautifully-articulated version of the argument from Call It A Crisis: Law Firms Need to Respond Quickly to Needs of Working Parents (Law.com) – emphasis is mine:
“Imagine you are on the leadership team of any large organization in this country. A tornado has torn through a city where the majority of your employees live. Or a wildfire has leveled the homes of people who work for you. Perhaps some other unforeseen tragedy has both individually and collectively rocked large swaths of your workforce. What measures would your organization take in such a situation? Hire counselors to help your team members grieve, talk about it, and start to plan what comes next? Reach out personally to particularly hard-hit employees to offer support or ask what might help? Consider allocating funds or other resources that show your solidarity with your people through a difficult time?
Consider this: The parents who work for you are currently living through a crisis. And they have been for five months. It is by no means over, nor is it showing any signs of resolving. In fact, ask any parent and they will tell you their deepest fear is that this crisis will be with us for many, many months with no relief in sight. Meanwhile, these same parents are being asked to work and lead as if nothing has changed on the home front.”
If you, as an employer, reached out to help fire or tornado victims among your employee population, would anyone begrudge you that assistance? Would anyone scream, “that’s unfair!” I don’t think so. Why is this any different?
No, We Didn’t Actually *Choose* This
“Well, this is different,” some of your employees may tell you, “because parents chose to have children.” Yes, it’s true that many of us chose to have children. But we did not choose to have children in a world with zero support from our villages. Closed schools. And virtual education. No one could have seen that coming. No one.
Let’s continue the natural disaster argument from above, too. Would anyone say, “Well, you shouldn’t have chosen to live in that part of town that the fire tore through? Anyone knows that people who live near forests might have their homes destroyed by fire.” No!! I don’t think we’d hear this argument. Ever.
I know how heated and political childbearing conversations can get. Yet we all need to remember that it is a normal human activity to have a child. AND it is a normal human expectation to rely on others (often referred to as “alloparents”) to help raise our children. As Brigid Schulte reminds us in her amazing book, Overwhelmed, women have been working, and communities have been caring for children, for nearly all of human history:
[Context: Brigid is interviewing Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, an evolutionary anthropologist, and they’re discussing Kung women in the Kalahari Desert in Africa, 2,000 years ago]
“The whole idea that mothers stayed at camp and the men went off to hunt? No way! These women were walking thousands of miles every year with their children. Or if it was not safe, they were leaving them back at camp.” She pauses to drive that point home: Sometimes mothers left their children back at camp. The children were with their fathers, older siblings, grandparents, relatives, and other trusted, nurturing adults- people Hrdy calls “alloparents” (“allo” means “other than” in Greek). “It’s natural for mothers to work. It’s natural for mothers to take care of their children,” she says. “What’s unnatural is for mothers to be the sole caretaker of children. What’s unnatural is not to have more support for mothers.”
So let’s abandon the “support for parents is unfair because they chose their situation” argument. Okay?
What Type of Employer Do You Want to Be? – An Existential Question
For decades – no, centuries – our workplaces have been designed in favor of men without childcare responsibilities. Employers have long favored facetime, butts in chairs, and hours logged as a measure of success. We’ve built partnership and tenure tracks to require peak (and inhumane) productivity during the exact years women are often giving birth to little, helpless humans. And yet when small – no, tiny – incremental changes are put in place to help level the playing field for working parents, they’re called unfair?
If you want to be known as an organization where parents actually want to work, now is the time to take a stand. When the pandemic ends (and it will), do you want your parent employees to still be there with you? Do you want to be proud of how you acted in the midst of a crisis? These are existential questions worth contemplating.
Working parenthood is an inclusion issue for your organization. In the same way you are – hopefully – taking a hard look right now at how included your BIPOC employees feel, you should be asking similar questions about parents. We’ve been learning that it’s not okay to remain silent in the face of racism, but rather that we need to be actively anti-racist in our companies and in our personal lives.
So too, here. Did you know that a majority of women still fear telling their manager that they are pregnant, for fear of the (very real) stigmas associated with having a family and being a professional? We desperately need organizations to be consciously and vocally pro-parent right now. We need to apply the skills we’re learning around unconscious bias and micro-aggressions to the working parent population, too. (Wondering whether you have any implicit biases associated with gender and career? Take the Harvard IAT test on this subject here. It’s fascinating.)
Any Snack Is Better Than No Snack (a.k.a. Do Something)
Okay, so you’ve shaken your fear of acting. You see the suffering population. And you’re ready to take a stand as an organization known for your empathy. Now what?
Another common theme I’ve heard from employers is, “We don’t know what to do.” And also, “Our parents expect us to fix this problem for them. But we can’t.”
I hear you. Really, and truly, I do. If there were one single fix (okay, other than the obvious vaccine), someone would have thought of it already. But just because you don’t have the perfect solution doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to help caregivers.
Liz Gulliver of kunik put it so well in her recent newsletter:
“There are two things I’ve learned as a mom and a founder that might help HR teams: exhaustive due diligence doesn’t fit every scenario, and any snack is better than no snack when the kids are screaming. Now is the time to take action and move forward, not deliberate for weeks and months on end.”
The Time to Take Action is NOW
The beauty of some of the help you can provide working parents is that this help can benefit all of your employees. Offering flexible work hours? Helpful to everyone. Hosting workshops to teach skills around boundary-setting, time management, and energy conservation? Helpful to everyone. (Reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like Mindful Return to lead one of these workshops for your organization.)
And yes, there are some supports that should be specific to your working parents. Time off and creditable billable hours for caregiving can help. Host a town hall to hear your working parents’ concerns. Support the starting of a working parent group – or fund with dollars and FTEs – the caregiver-focused ERGs and networks you already have. (Encourage your working parent group leaders to join our Working Parent Group Network for support in this endeavor, too.)
Fair or Unfair? That Shouldn’t Be the Question
In short, framing the question of whether it’s fair or unfair to help parents through this crisis sets us all up for failure and fighting. Please, please don’t pit employees against one another.
Instead, pledge to be a workplace that stands for a culture of respect and empathy for parents. There are no binary choices to be made. There is only a choice to be empathetic to a suffering population. Period.
Want more practical tips on working parenthood? Check out my book, Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave