By Jennifer O'Connell
It’s not as though any working parent will have been surprised by the controversial ruling of US Judge Loretta A. Preska last week.
Finding against a group of mothers who had taken a discrimination suit against their employer, Bloomberg, she concluded that: “Making a decision that preferences family over work comes with consequences.”
Well, yes. If you’ve ever tried ironing on name-tags whilst taking part in a conference call, or have perfected the fine art of replying to emails while cooking spaghetti, you know what she’s talking about.
If you’ve felt the eyes of a childless colleague boring through you as you’ve dashed for the exit to attend – yet again - to a sick toddler, or explained to a visibly unimpressed boss that 6pm really is a non-negotiable deadline for crèche pick-ups, you know all about the consequences that come with putting your family first.
But while it’s one thing recognising that an unfairness or an inequality exists, it’s quite another for a judge to come out and effectively rubber-stamp it.
Buried near the end of her 64 page ruling, which dismissed a claim by a group of mothers that Bloomberg routinely discriminated against pregnant women and those just returned from maternity leave, Preska appeared to wonder what these women expected when they went off and got themselves pregnant.
“The law does not mandate ‘work-life balance’. In a company like Bloomberg, which explicitly makes all-out dedication its expectation, making a decision that preferences family over work comes with consequences,” was her blunt assessment of the action - which included claims by some women that they were paid less when they returned from maternity leave, and others who said they were demoted and replaced by younger male employees.
Preska acknowledged that individuals who decide to spend more time with their families might face hurdles to advancement in the workplace. But what else did they expect?
“Even if there were several isolated instances of individual discrimination,” there was insufficient evidence to prove that discrimination was the company’s “standard operating procedure,” she concluded.
In pure legal terms, of course, Preska is right. As long as Bloomberg’s demands of its employees do not contravene the law, it’s entitled to expect them to confirm to its culture. And if that culture involves chanting ‘om’ at meetings, wearing yellow polka dot clown suits, or staying in the office until 2am, then they really don’t have a right to complain.
But her judgment strikes me as depressingly short-sighted.
As a working mother, I know all about the consequences that come with trying to juggle a demanding career and young children. And rarely, in my experience, is it the job that suffers.
I’ve seen firsthand the lengths that working parents of both genders go to, precisely to ensure that their employer is not short-changed: the mother of newborn twins who asked a colleague to deliver an important file to her bed on the recovery ward; the father who regularly stays up til midnight catching up on work he missed so he could be home to put his children to bed; the silent army whose day begins when the rest of the world is still asleep, because they’ve got to run just to stand still.
These same parents go to comparable lengths to ensure that their children don’t suffer either. Given a choice, it’s fair to assume that most children would opt to have both parents around all the time – at least until they reach the age when they’d prefer the company of your wallet and the number of a pizza delivery company.
But when that’s not possible, the majority of parents do their best to come up with a solution that ensures their children are as contented and well cared for as possible. Yes, there are lazy, work-shy people in every company, some of whom also happen to be parents. But does parenthood make otherwise dedicated employees lazy and work-shy? I doubt it.
Preska’s right of course: there are consequences. Something always has to give – usually that something is sleep and a social life.
The difficulty with deciding that there’s no such thing as a legal right to a work-life balance is that it may end up driving talented and educated women – and a growing minority of men – out of the workforce for good.
Sure, that’s one crude solution to the unemployment problem. But in a time of stagnant economic growth, falling consumer spending and a global debt crisis, we should be doing everything we can to hold onto talented, dedicated multi-taskers.
In her judgment, Preska wrote that: “A female employee is free to choose to dedicate herself to the company at any cost, and, so far as this record suggests, she will rise in this organization accordingly.”
Dedicate yourself to the job ‘at any cost’, and leave the repopulation of the human race to those with less important careers, seems to be the rather bleak conclusion.
After I wrote in these pages about my own struggle to find a work-life balance – a process which culminated in me leaving a job I was very fulfilled in, to return to a more precarious, but more flexible, career freelancing - many people contacted me to ask what I thought the solution was.
At the time, I felt that it had to come from a change in the culture of the workplace, and the willingness of employers to adopt more flexible working environments.
I still believe that’s the solution. But now I realise that nothing is going to happen until men demand it too.
Until fathers start taking up their parental leave entitlements; until their start insisting on the right to leave work at 5.30pm to pick up the kids; until they look for days off when one of their children is sick, the culture will never change.
Every child has two parents. We need to stop seeing the responsibility for their care as a woman’s problem, and start seeing it as a human problem.
This article first appeared in The Sunday Business Post on August 28, 2011