May 14 2013
Carrie L. Lukas
Female powerhouses offer lots of advice for how to juggle work and family. Yet while some women are inspired by calls to "lean in" to their careers, many women simply don't aspire to corner offices. In fact, a recent Pew Research Center study found that just 23 percent of married mothers prefer full-time work, much less the demanding schedule of a chief executive at a major corporation.
So what really stands in the way of women achieving that holy grail of work-family balance? Ill-conceived government policies shoulder part of the blame. Government imposes a wide-variety of regulations and policies that limit the employment opportunities available for women. Most of these are done in the name of protecting workers, but they can backfire by making it more difficult and expensive for businesses to offer jobs, particularly flexible work arrangements. The good news is that, unlike so many of the other factors that complicated this issue, these policies can change.
Consider the Fair Labor Standards Act, a law that was enacted in 1938. FSLA's rules for pay, hours, and worker classifications may have made sense during the Great Depression, but it is out-of-date today, leaving the work-world much less flexible than it should be.
Technologies that allow at-home work--for workers to respond to email, participate in conference calls, and complete computer-based tasks--have been a boon for professional workers who are exempt from FLSA's requirements and are on salary. Parents who need to stay home with sick children or want to be at home for after-school hours have the ability to complete work tasks later in the evening from home.
Sadly, businesses have reason to be reluctant about giving workers subject to FLSA similar options. Employers are required to carefully monitor these employees' hours so they can comply with over-time requirements. Since at-home workers typically blur the lines of work and home life, this creates an administrative headache and potential for government sanction that businesses want to avoid.
There are some proposals to loosen some of the FSLA requirements, such as the Working Families Flexibility Act of 2013, which would enable workers to opt for comp-time instead of over-time pay. That's a good start, but FLSA deserves a more fundamental overhaul.
Other government mandates for employment contracts also stand in the way of true flexibility. Today, about 30 percent of a full-time workers' compensation goes to benefits and taxes, rather than take-home pay. Some existing mandates (such as the Family Medical Leave Act), as well as proposals for paid sick leave and family leave, are championed in the name of providing "flexibility" for workers.
Yet such one-size-fits-all employment contracts are the enemy of true flexibility. The recent Pew survey hints at the need for more diverse employment options. Working women have different reasons for seeking employment and want different work arrangements. A majority of married moms (50 percent) prefer part-time work. For these women, a flexible schedule--not maximizing pay--is paramount. For unmarried mothers, however, full-time work is most desirable. Since maximizing take-home pay is key for many of these women, ironically, mandated benefits may hurt them most.
Progressives often argue such government intervention is necessary to protect workers from exploitation. However, most working women (89 percent) questioned in the Pew Survey reported being completely or mostly satisfied with their jobs. This suggests that most workers feel fairly-treated by their employers, which should give those who would impose additional mandates pause. While certainly some protections may be needed to prevent true exploitation, most women are capable of advancing their own interests. Encouraging more job creation and diverse work options should be lawmakers' real goal.
No set of policies will solve the fundamental challenge women face in balancing work and family: There are only 24-hours in a day, and we cannot be in two places at once. The best we can do is create an environment that leads to a wide variety of opportunities and then give women space to make the choices that make sense for them.
Women can decide for themselves whether they want to "lean in" to their workplaces, but government needs to lean out.
Carrie Lukas is the managing director of the Independent Women's Forum.