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"Workplace Discrimination--Still Alive and Well"

by
Martha Burk

I recently attended the Wal-Mart stockholder’s meeting, where I presented a resolution asking the company to disclose statistics on stock distribution by race and gender. I also admonished the company on its board of directors – only 2 women out of 14 members. That’s pretty awful for a company with close to 70% female employees and an equal percentage of female customers. It could be one reason why the firm is the subject of the largest class action gender discrimination lawsuit in history. Women up and down the line are allegedly paid less than the men, in some cases told outright that “men need to support their families.” This blatant (and blatantly illegal) justification for sex discrimination is not nearly as common now as it used to be, but other, more subtle, discriminatory practices are still rampant in the workplace.

From Wall Street to Wal-Mart, women are paid less for doing the same job as men. Female brokers at Smith-Barney filed a class action against their company in April, charging that the fat accounts always go to the guys, and so does most of the sales support. It’s well documented that even in so-called “women’s” jobs like teaching and nursing, the men who do choose those professions make more. Some like to say it’s because of the “choices” women make – choices to take time off for children, either having them or taking care of them. That may be, but women are sometimes forced into these choices by the choices that men – still at the top of almost all U.S. corporations – make. And those choices by the corporate elite just incidentally shortchange men as well, only in a different way.

Our workplaces are still structured around the idea that family responsibilities will be taken care of by someone other than the employee – he or she is expected to have unlimited hours to devote to the job. And unfortunately for both women and men, it’s the he that most often fulfills that expectation. There are a number of reasons why, but corporate culture has to be near the top of the list. Even in companies that have so-called “family friendly” policies like leave for teacher meetings, men aren’t expected to take advantage of them. And God forbid if a man should take the full 12 weeks unpaid leave allotted by law for the birth of a newborn, or want to job-share or go part time for a couple of years. What is he, some kind of wimp?

Despite all the big talk that big corporations do about valuing families, the truth is that the family they value most is the 1950s “organization man” model. Men are expected to be on duty regardless of family circumstance – what Wellesley College professor Rosanna Hertz calls the “test of manhood” at work. The test disadvantages fathers, who fear being seen as a less serious employee for choosing to spend time with their kids over extra hours on the job. And the fears are well grounded. Women have been facing that choice for years, and though it’s not seen as abnormal as it is for men, the consequences are still shocking. For women who drop out of the workforce even for a year, the penalty is a whopping 32% of total earnings for the next fifteen years. It’s no wonder in an economy that demands every penny for families to survive, fathers aren’t anxious to jump on the Daddy track and that role is usually left to Mom, who in turn suffers at work with less money and lowered opportunities.

Balancing work and family has traditionally been seen as a personal problem, one that does not concern the employer. But if corporate America wants to remain competitive, it needs to rethink what employees value, and stop giving lip service to families while giving rewards to those that pretend family doesn’t exist. Over two-thirds of fathers work more than 40 hours per week, a fourth work over 50 hours -- most because of expectations or requirements, not personal preference. If more men were allowed to take paternity leave (a mere 7% of workplaces offer it), or encouraged to use family leave (rarely taken by men, even though they’re entitled), it would start to become “normal,” meaning more acceptable. Fathers would not automatically be viewed as less dedicated or less promotable (as mothers are now) if everyone, including the boss, set the standard. This would not only give men some much-needed relief, it would level the playing field for women who now pay what some have dubbed the “motherhood tax” in the form of lower pay and fewer promotions at work. 

It’s been tried in a very few companies, with excellent results. Ernst & Young, the global consulting firm with 23,000 U.S. employees in 95 locations, added two weeks’ parental leave at full pay in 2002. In the first year, 46% of those taking the benefit were male. How did they do it? “We advertised it, encouraged it, and reminded men – from administrators to partners,” said a spokeswoman. In other words, the company validated its acceptability for fathers, and sent a message that careers and fatherhood are not mutually exclusive. If that idea caught on in the workplace generally, it could help women even more. Not only would child care be shared by many working couples, but women would lose less pay and not be stigmatized as much and seen as non-serious employees when they take advantage of family leave. After all, the men will be doing it too.

Making those great sounding “family benefits” truly meaningful in the workplace would not only help working women and men and make companies more competitive, it would help society. More time with parents equates to less time on the streets and fewer nights with only the TV as a dinner companion for kids. Role modeling for sons and daughters would be no small benefit as well. Both might grow up expecting a more balanced care-giving equation, instead of the “men own the jobs, women own the kids” model corporate America is still stuck on.

Copyright © 2005 Martha Burk 

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