Balancing work and family life is one of today’s leading gender issues, according to Dr. Melanie Hulbert . It’s a major factor that keeps many women from holding top leadership positions, earning tenure and changing the academy into a gender-neutral environment.
Despite having earned top administrative jobs, advanced degrees and prestigious reputations, most women remain the chief caretakers for their families. She spoke of asking a little boy who’d just turned six years old if the tooth fairy had visited. “No,” he replied, “Daddy said she was unavailable, but apparently she’ll be around tonight.”
Hulbert also recalled once when she was breastfeeding in her office and hadn’t closed the door entirely. A student knocked on the door, opening it. “He was mortified, and never came to my class again.”
Given the nation’s current political climate, it’s not surprising that the United States lags behind less developed countries in creating family friendly work/life policies.
Just how far do we have to go? Well, 65 countries currently offer paid paternity leave. The United States offers none.
In 170 countries, mothers have a right to breastfeed, while in the United States, the prevailing attitude is that it should be done in the privacy of one’s home, never in public. Paid sick leave is a right in 145 countries, with 127 of them offering a week or more. In the United States, it was a fight to get the Family Medical Leave Act passed and it still does not provide for paid sick time.
Hulbert is an assistant professor of sociology at George Fox University in Portland OR. Her research interests focus on the sociology of work, gender issues and family, especially how HR managers impact gendered roles.
She’s also interested in the ways culture plays a role in designing work-life policies and putting them into action. Hulbert discussed how and why work-life policies become organizational practices at the College and University Work Family Association (CUWFA) annual conference held in Santa Barbara in February.
From paper to reality
Hulbert’s study sought to answer three questions:
- How and why do policies become organizational practices?
- How do HR managers affect gendered stereotypes?
- In what ways does the culture play a role?
She discussed her research study among HR managers, directors and VPs at a SUNY campus. Of the 40 respon-dents, 26 were women and 14 men, of whom 98% were Caucasian. Ranging in age from 23 to 65, respondents averaged about 11 years in the field. Of the 40, 22 had earned bachelor’s degrees and 18 had master’s degrees.
She referred to the concept of social embeddedness (Grannovetter 1985), which states that certain leaders are not only tied to each other at top universities, but also have personal relationships with others at various levels.
While most research focuses on those at the top and those who actually put theory into practice, an essential ingredient is the social catalyst who ties the two groups together. “You are those people,” she said. “You are the catalysts.”
Hulbert’s study identified two types of HR and work/life managers: “action makers” and “reactors.”
• Action makers cause things to happen if they get the go-ahead from the top, depending upon how much power they have to respond to the needs of their community. They describe themselves as “involved and committed” and spend most of their time reading, talking with others and making connections. “They wish to signal to the world that they are family-friendly and are doing cutting-edge research,” she said.
Action makers use communication to get things done. They teach employees where they can find data and how to use it to serve their needs. Some refuse to use existing policies that favor men. For example, promotion and tenure was made specifically for the male career path, which is especially difficult for women who have kids before getting tenure.
• Reactors, on the other hand, do not assume any leadership opportunities. They only partially respond to requests, but frequently conceal their non-compliance. They tell faculty and staff that “You can discuss it with me,” but they won’t put the time into thinking, networking or researching the issues. No change in formal policies or procedures will result under a reactor’s watch.
“You are not reactors,” Hulbert told the audience, “but you’ll meet them. Be prepared to deal with them.”
She found that policy utilization at the HR level is uneven. Women use family care, home care and family maintenance policies significantly more than men do. Men use policies for recreational purposes, such as attending their children’s special events. “Gendered stereotypes have not only limited the approaches to work/family policies, but have influenced and limited them,” she said.
Actual data on policy utilization is hard to find, but audience members contributed this information:
• At the University of Washington , they’ve tried to locate this type of data, but usually HR doesn’t even know when a faculty member is gone.
• At UC-Berkeley, a survey of several thousand employees found that most lacked knowledge of work/life policies. They also discovered that even women who knew of the policies were reluctant to use them.
• Data from Boston Medical suggests that fewer than 10% of couples assumed stereotypical sex roles.
• When Duke University introduced paid leave in 2000, it found that men are using it as much as women. As a result, they feel the culture is becoming more family friendly.
• George Fox University has two groups of parents who meet every other week to discuss work/life issues. The Moms of Fox and the Dads of Fox invite speakers and work in partnership on issues.
Importance of work/life policies
Why is it important to have specific work/life policies on the books? Across the nation, women still assume 60 to 70% of the childcare responsibilities, which limits their careers. And men still perceive that it’s not okay for them to request leave from work.
However, that perception might be changing with the parents in Generations X and Y. “Young men come in with different expectations,” said Hulbert. She’s seen a significant number of faculty and staff men seeking eldercare services.
Change is on the horizon, with two trends especially worth noting. Men’s allocation of time between home and work is becoming more balanced. Men are not letting work rule their lives like their fathers did before them, and they are willing to take less money for working fewer hours. Women are now in more top positions of power and can set the tone, although Hulbert cautions to watch out for the “women with men’s heads syndrome.”
The culture trumps
How does workplace culture impact work-family policies? Culture is defined as shared assumptions, beliefs and values. Workplace values represent what the organization itself values in meeting the needs of its staff. The culture is set by those at the top and reflects their priorities and interests.
Real leaders buy into a legitimate work-family culture. Reluctant leaders deter an organization from developing “real” practices. Some middle managers see the policies as reducing their status. Others buy into them only to be able to compete effectively within the business model.
There seems to be significant inconsistency between rhetoric and actual use of family-friendly policies. Managers say they have policies but nobody uses them. Those who work extra hours still get extra credit. The optimal solution is that work-family issues don’t need designated resources. Balancing work and family is a way of life, not a trend. And a growing number of organizations will see the need to create and use family friendly policies as a way to recruit and retain top employees.
Contact Hulbert at:firstname.lastname@example.org or