Better Life Lab
The Future of Work, Gender, and Social Policy

Nov. 8 2017 10:00 AM

Child Care Providers Want Degrees. We Have to Figure Out How to Pay for Them.

Out with friends in D.C. the other night, I heard one say to another, “Have you seen the city’s new regulations for child care? They are so crazy. I don’t need my kid’s day care providers to have degrees. I just want them to love and snuggle my kid.” I looked around the table: There we were, four white women with well-paying jobs and young children in public schools, child care centers, andnannies. Though I am the only one working in early childhood education, each of us has a B.A. and most of us have more. We pursued our degrees because it was expected or because we wanted to grow our knowledge and skills; because we wanted to be better at our jobs, or because our jobs required it; or because we wanted to increase our compensation, advance in our field, achieve better outcomes, and help support our families. Why didn’t we understand that child care providers might want advanced education in their field for these same reasons?

By the end of 2020, Washington, D.C., will require all lead educators to have earned an associate degree (child care center directors will need to earn a bachelor’s degree). While the policy is there to help kids, some early childhood educators are happy about what this means for them too. “Early childhood educators are hungry for opportunities to support the children they serve, and advance their careers,” says Sue Russell, executive director of the T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood National Center, which provides comprehensive higher education scholarships and support to educators around the country.

Some of those educators, who are currently in the field, told me about why they got or want a degree—and they said the same things my friends and I would. “I wanted to be the best possible teacher I could be,” said Donna. “I was limited in my opportunity to advance without it,” said Angela. Michelle wanted to “better understand child development.” Lesley “needed to be able to support myself and my daughter.” Kayley wanted a degree “to be better equipped to help my school, staff, and children.”

Yet the ambition of these educators isn’t always supported by their realities. Unlike my dinner companions, the women taking care of our children are often not white. Their first language is not necessarily English. Frequently failed by an educational system designed to help people like me succeed, they may experience daunting barriers in going back to school. Because our system underfunds early childhood education, they are often poor; because they are poor, they lack transportation options. And although they are child care providers, when they themselves have to be in class or working, they often lack child care. In addition to all of this, they suffer from a lack of respect—or, to be more precise, they suffer from being told they are respected, but so often shown, by word and deed, that they are not.

The parents at my dinner table love the people who care for and educate their children. They pay them, often as much as they can possibly afford. They appreciate them and support them; they care about their well-being; and they may ruefully note that they wouldn’t want to do their jobs. They often understand that an early childhood educator’s job is “difficult;” but by this they mean “tedious,” not “intellectually challenging.” And because of this, they do not yet believe that being an early childhood educator means having a complex demanding job that requires specialized skills, knowledge, and competencies that go beyond patiently sitting on the floor to work with the little ones.

Many Americans—including voters and politicians on both sides of the aisle—do recognize that high quality early childhood education is more than hugs and safekeeping. Neuroscience has demonstrated the rapid growth of children’s brains in their earliest years; economic studies have shown significant returns on investment. Other research shows that low compensation undermines quality. As a systematic review from this year summarizes, “Higher teacher qualifications are associated with higher quality early childhood education and care.” In other words, having educated educators is good for kids.

The less-discussed truth, however, is that having educated educators is good for educators too. It’s good for their own families and communities. It’s good for the school systems in the towns where they live; it’s good for the tax base of the nation. It’s good for them, full stop.

Let’s be clear: I’m not advocating for degree requirements, accompanied by a small increase in dollars, crossed fingers, and a hope it all works out. We have to collectively, carefully, and intentionally attend to the structural, institutional, and individual barriers that fall disproportionately on women of color. Washington has made a start in the right direction with its regulations and the BEGin Act, now under consideration by the D.C. Council to establish an infant and toddler educator compensation task force, and provide increased reimbursement rates to educators caring for infants and toddlers—but policymakers need to stop making compensation an afterthought. It can’t come later, for then (after newly educated educators have left the field for higher wages elsewhere), it will be too late.

There has to be a balance. If the field of child care on the whole makes educational gains, but loses the diversity that makes it both unique and effective, then we will have failed. On the other hand, if we start with the diverse field we have, and reject the opportunity to help these smart, undervalued workers gain education and an equitable, accessible path to higher-paid work that can’t be automated or offshored, then we all lose.

So let’s debate, as D.C. and states across the nation have done and continue to do, over the shared responsibility for how to pay for it. Let’s debate over the size and scope of initiatives; over what the right policy choices are and how to target funding. But let’s stop debating over whether these choices are worth the investment.

We can do better by the people—most of them women of color—who care for and educate our kids than thinking degrees aren’t for them, especially when the science is clear. We need high expectations and high levels of support to accompany them; our children and the people who love, care for, and educate them are worth nothing less.

Nov. 7 2017 10:00 AM

New Moms Have Plenty to Deal With at Work. Don’t Add More Guilt.

Spend five minutes talking to any new working mother, and you’re almost sure to hear the word guilt. I surveyed and/or interviewed more than 800 of them—CEOs and hourly workers, adoptive moms, single mothers, and traditional, married moms, too. The G-word came up again and again. Some working mothers felt “guilty,” they said, for leaving their babies with a sitter, or for asking their colleagues to take on extra tasks while they were on parental leave. Some even felt guilty for enjoying being back at work. The conflict these women felt was real, and it impacted every facet of their identity, at home and at work. For some, muddling through this guilt fostered emotional growth—they doubled down on mentoring and finding meaning in their work. For others, it triggered postpartum mood disorders that still haunt their parenting and their career ambition years later.

That’s why I was stunned to read author and therapist Erica Komisar extolling the virtues of mommy guilt in a recent Wall Street Journal interview. Her new book, Being There, urges mothers to stay home with their children for their first three years of life; my new book, The Fifth Trimester, gives new mothers the tools and agency to go back to work with a small baby, even if they must do so before they are physically and emotionally ready to be there, as 75 percent of the women I surveyed reported had been the case. Komisar wants working mothers to feel guilty so they will do as biology (allegedly) dictates and stay home with their infants.

The argument is rife with classist and sexist (and occasionally scientifically false) assumptions:

  • that women can afford to forgo a paycheck (or can jump back into the workforce years later without great penalty)
  • that men aren’t as biologically capable of nurturing infants (sorry, gay dads and stay-at-home fathers, your oxytocin doesn’t count)
  • and that any mother in distress has access to the kind of mental health care that Komisar offers from her office on New York’s Upper West Side.

But putting these assumptions aside, I want to address her overarching, wrong-minded intent: Komisar thinks she’s helping children by shackling their mothers with guilt.

Just as we've learned about gender, guilt is a social construct. I discovered in my research that when a mother feels guilty for working, she’s feeling anxious about a supposed “choice” she made in the context of societal norms—to work, to leave her baby, to invest in her career’s future and strive to make more money in spite of the gender pay gap. So when psychiatrist Christin Drake helps a new mother work through this guilt crisis, she takes the whole notion of choice out of the equation. “It is a unique situation of the American mother that we have to ad-hoc negotiate these things for ourselves,” Drake says, referencing the lack of paid parental leave and universal child care in the U.S. as compared with other developed countries around the world. “We are left to our own devices in terms of this planning, but also, more important, in terms of the judgments we make about ourselves in the process.” And if you don’t judge yourself already, Komisar will teach you how.

Even confident working mothers told me that the mom guilt they felt after watching early TV interviews with Komisar has stuck with them for months. "I've dried so many tears in my office because of mother haters," Drake says. Komisar claims that mothers who “devalue, deprioritize, and neglect their mothering,” as she puts it, risk their children’s emotional, social, and behavioral well-being. In the meantime, every morning, these women pack up their pump parts, manage the mental load, and must go to work, carrying with them the extra weight of the guilt Komisar has saddled on them.

Komisar is aware that her views are old-fashioned. She calls herself “a bit of a pariah” but excuses her judgments of mothers already in an untenable situation by leaning on the (sometimes loosely interpreted) science of the mother-infant connection. I’m a mother of two and know that connection intimately. Leaving for work in those early days felt like a second cutting of the umbilical cord, this time with nerve endings. I also know that biology dictates that I crave calories to sustain my life, but that doesn’t mean I’m eating all of my children’s Halloween chocolate. Social progress has always required that we look beyond our own base, biological inclinations at any given moment toward our greater long-term good. And in the long term, the science just doesn’t support Komisar’s dated ideas.

“There’s no evidence I know of that children whose mothers work but who are in loving caregiver relationships have detrimental outcomes in terms of their achievement or development,” says pediatrician and neuroscientist Kimberly Noble, who studies the impact of poverty on infant and child brain development and cognition at Columbia University’s Teachers College. A mother’s anxiety, on the other hand, has a real negative impact on the child. One new study published in Clinical Psychological Science shows that anxiety impairs intuitive decision-making. In other words, guilt can hamper a mother’s intuition—that holy grail of good parenting.

In Being There, Komisar does include one chapter for working moms titled, “When You Can’t Be There,” and another on how to repair the damage you have done by being absent. The upshot: Hire a good nanny, avoid day care, and tell your child, “I feel so sad when I am at work and can’t be with you.”

But what if you’re not sad? Or don’t want to be, or want to show your children, instead, the satisfaction you find in your work so that they might find some too one day? What if the "damage" you've done is far outweighed by the independence and love you've fostered with a whole network of caregivers? What if, instead of falling victim to guilt, we use that conflict as motivation to create a more supportive culture that provides what parents need to feel at peace about these decisions?

For that utopia to happen, mothers need adequate paid leave (for themselves and, equally, their partners), excellent prenatal and postpartum health care, deliberate re-entry benefits for their return to work, and federal and private workplace policies that support all of the above. It’s no coincidence that Norway, a country where most mothers work full time and have access to nearly a year of paid parental leave, ranks No. 1 on the world’s list of the happiest countries. It also, incidentally, has nearly double the average GDP per capita of the 30 advanced economies in the world studied by the World Economic Forum. Support for working mothers doesn’t come at the expense of economic productivity—it bolsters it!

Rather than shaming working mothers for not "being there" at home, we need to fortify them so they can revolutionize our economy and raise a future generation of innovative, satisfied workers who'll keep the progress going. How does American society get to that place from here? It starts in the boardroom, on the ballot, and on the train to work, toting a breast pump. It starts by being there.

Nov. 6 2017 12:01 PM

Nurse Midwives Are Trained, Lifesaving Professionals. Why Are We Holding Them Back?

At a time when maternal mortality rates are decreasing worldwide, they more than doubled between 2000 and 2014 in the U.S. and particularly affected women of color. A simple solution to the skyrocketing costs and scarce access to maternal care is at our fingertips: nurses. Jessica Henman got her master’s and license as a certified nurse midwife in 2010, but when she went to practice in the St. Louis area, she hit a wall. She needed to establish a legal “collaborative agreement” with a doctor who would review her charts, approve prescriptions, and be held liable for her work. But because Missouri doctors are limited in the number of advanced practice nurses they can collaborate with (three), she had a hard time finding one. “I contacted over 100 physicians and couldn’t find a collaborator,” recounts Henman. In Missouri, a doctor needs to review the work of advanced practice nurses; if that doctor gets hit by a bus and isn’t able to practice, Henman can’t practice. Ironically, Henman went back to get a lesser degree as a certified professional midwife so she could practice without a collaboration agreement. For her first two years as a midwife, Henman operated under a lesser certification and only took low-risk pregnancies of mothers able to pay out of pocket.

To do what they’re highly trained and licensed to do—such as take blood pressure, carry out maternal health checks, and, in the case of certified nurse midwives, deliver babies—nurses across the country face different rules about what parts of that training and licensing they’re able to put into practice, and these regulations are encouraged by the American Medical Association, which claims it protects patient safety. A new study in the Journal of Health Economics examines the effect these additional regulations, or scope of practice laws, have on maternal health outcomes. The answer: none. Being supervised by a doctor doesn’t improve maternal health care, but it certainly makes it more costly and difficult to get.

The study’s lead author, Sara Markowitz, says the study shows that “Barriers aren’t related to care—they’re administrative red tape. The arguments that doctors are making—[that they are being] protective of women and infant health—are not bearing out.” In other words, states that make it more difficult for nurse midwives to practice don’t experience better maternal health. They do, however, see higher rates of cesarean sections and induced labor. Markowitz attributes this difference to competition from midwives—doctors change their behavior depending on the behavior (and perhaps power?) of nurse midwives. When nurse midwives can practice, doctors are less likely to recommend high-risk treatments unless they are very necessary.

Markowitz et al.’s study provides evidence that the choice between using nursing or OB-GYN care does not affect many outcomes, such as birth weight and gestational age. That’s because most of the important care pregnant women need—advice to monitor stress, take prenatal vitamins, and avoid smoking and drinking—could be given by a midwife or OB-GYN.

If these providers are available and their care adequate, why are so many women having trouble accessing family planning, care at each stage of their pregnancies, and support after delivery? Even if midwives work through the red tape to be able to practice, many patients who need them can’t afford them. According to Mary Jane Lewitt, CNM and a co-author of the study, there are many patients caught in the middle who “make too much for Medicaid and not enough for private insurance. They can’t afford prenatal care and drop into emergency labor and delivery.” And when labor and delivery units close and the number of obstetricians declines, as they have in rural America and across the broader U.S., child and maternal health suffers. A new study by Peiyin Hung et al. found that, between 2004 and 2014*, 2.4 million women lived in counties with no obstetric services: 9 percent of rural counties saw all obstetric services close, and another 45 percent did not offer obstetric services to begin with. Even in D.C., as of October, there were no obstetric facilities in the eastern half of the city.

Rita Ledbetter, a CNM at Medical Arts Associates in Moline, Illinois, has also struggled with collaborative agreements across her 24 years: “For me, we’re at the mercy of our collaborative physician.” Even if a CNM establishes a collaborative agreement, paying for labor and delivery may still be an issue. Reimbursement rates from Medicaid are low, and payments are often made late. Ledbetter says that when reimbursement rates for maternal health care decreased in 2015, her practice, which she describes as “two-thirds indigent, one-third yuppie,” decided not to take those low-income clients any longer. “There was a whole cohort of women without care. For me, what that meant, I refused to stop seeing very high-risk patients. I was truly worried that I could get fired, because ethically I could not do what my place of business was requiring. They [Medical Arts] worried about running a business. I was worried about dumping patients,” says Ledbetter. And “dumping patients” meant moms and babies would probably go without care.

Kristin Richman, a California-based CNM, also struggles with reimbursement rates: “Medicaid doesn’t cover out-of-hospital midwives [in California], and midwives have difficulty opening private practices due to onerous regulations.” Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program pay for nearly half of all births in the U.S., excluding many individuals from using practitioners like Richman in a state that needs them the most. California anticipates a primary care shortage by 2030.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Mairi Breen Rothman has been in practice along the Washington-Maryland border since 1996. Because Maryland’s laws were much more burdensome than the district’s, when she opened her own practice—M.A.M.A.S. Inc.—in 2007, she started in D.C. Thanks to the efforts of nurses like Rothman, in 2014, Maryland began allowing certified nurse midwives to practice with just evidence of their education and a license. The result? “We’ve attended over 600 babies, have a 5½ percent cesarean rate, and an 8 percent transfer rate.” Translation: lots of healthy babies born with less expensive, less risky procedures.

Rothman contends that if she or other CNMs were able to take patients covered by Medicaid, they could help reduce the risk and cost of maternity care by providing the services they do—like important ongoing health monitoring—instead of the ones hospitals opt for, like costly C-sections. “We would like to offer our services to women on Medicaid, but Medicaid currently requires a prohibitive amount of liability insurance that we really don’t need since we are not part of an institution. If we were able to serve Medicaid clients, we estimate that we would be able to save the state of Maryland quite a bit of money.”

If midwives had the ability to work to the full extent of their training, their practice would expand access, reduce cost to maternal health care, and provide meaningful job opportunities in the fastest-growing sector of the economy, care work. But making those changes won’t be easy, largely because the status quo is maintained by powerful organizations like the American Medical Association. Though the gender breakdowns of the professions have changed, the elevation of historically masculine jobs like doctors and a devaluation of feminine jobs such as nursing may still be swaying policy toward barriers that are actively hurting care. Polls show that nurses are the most trusted of any profession. Perhaps it’s time for policymakers to translate that respect into higher wages and independence.

*Correction Nov. 6, 2017: This post originally misstated that Peiyin Hung’s study on access to obstetric services covered results found between 2000 and 2014. It was from between 2004 and 2014.

Nov. 3 2017 10:21 AM

The Next Step to Diversifying the Workforce? Support First-Generation Professionals.

Sarah Rawlins grew up in Montana, where her dad worked in HVAC, and her mom cleaned houses in affluent neighborhoods. She put herself through college and, after landing an internship in D.C., moved away from her home state. After successfully completing her internship, Rawlins worked with a recruiter and started a temp job this summer after a short bout of unemployment. Once she got there, she quickly learned how much she didn't know about succeeding in the professional world, and her first big shot became her first major blow. Though Rawlins had excelled as a first-generation college student, she was now a bit lost as a first-generation professional.

Universities today recognize the category of students who have no prior exposure or knowledge of navigating higher-ed institutions and may need additional resources as first-generation college students. But what happens to these same individuals after they graduate college and land their first jobs? Unlike their blue-collar or service-working parents, first-generation professionals work office jobs where work and the skills needed to do them well look different. Unlike their parents, they find themselves not only learning how to do a job but figuring out how to advance to the next one.

First-gen professional Ashlee Hoffman now works as an adviser for a local college access program and is struggling to figure out how to take the next step forward and become a district counselor. Her dad worked in fast food while she was growing up, and her mom did clerical work. This family history gave her few reference points for how to sell herself in professional contexts. When she was considering the job she’s in now, she was on vacation with her family when emails came in asking her what she expected to be paid. “I looked at my dad like, ‘I don’t know how to answer this question. They’ll probably pay me more than I’ve been making, so anything is fine.’ ” Now that she’s been on the job for three years, she says she’s “intimidated to go in and say ‘Can we have a conversation about it?’ I don’t even know if that’s how you ask.”

Even making small talk on the job can be difficult when you come from a background so different from many of your co-workers’. First-gen professional Jessica Spears grew up with her mom and dad working as line cooks. She not only graduated from college but got a Ph.D. and started working in biotechnology. She recalls being around peers and realizing they talked about internships or travel experiences they had that she hadn’t, opportunities that gave them more to talk about at work and in interviews. Spears says her parents, on the other hand, “have been on an airplane once in their whole lives.”

Having never had salaried work before, seven hours into her first day of her internship, Rawlins had to ask a co-worker about the basic structure of her new work schedule: “ ‘Is this 9-5? How does lunch work? Do I need to clock in?’ And she was like ‘No, show up at a reasonable hour, leave at a reasonable hour,’ ” Rawlins recalled. The internship ended, and so with it went many of these guides who were able to lead her through her new work life.

She was used to hearing back from service jobs fairly quickly, but in the professional world this was not the case. After facing months of unemployment, Rawlins found herself wishing she had started looking for a job earlier.

Rawlins, like an increasing number of professionals fresh out of college, turned to a recruiter for help. She was able to land a temp-to-hire position at a trade association in Washington. Soon after starting, she got nervous. She felt they weren’t giving her much work and didn’t give her feedback on the work she did do. Then the unexpected happened. The recruiter she’d worked with called her and told her she’d been fired. Rawlins was left confused. Was she given little work because she hadn’t done well from the start? Was she supposed to talk to someone at work to get guidance earlier on? Should she have asked for more work? Because she was hired through a recruiter, it was the recruiter, and not a direct supervisor, who told her the news.

Karen Hopkins is a researcher and professor at University of Maryland and part of a nationwide project seeking to help students and professionals facing struggles similar to Rawlins’. Hopkins focuses on people of color, and women in general, because she found these groups were greatly underrepresented in professional fields. Opportunities like working with real-world clients, résumé help, and mock interviews where individuals learn how to really talk about what they are doing are vital for all professionals, but especially those who didn’t get exposure to these things at home.

Hopkins feels that peer coaching is a major piece of the puzzle for first-generation professionals. “The peers help each other, talk about what they did in their agencies, and how they applied it to programs. Also, while they are being trained in this work the coaches are helping them figure out how to apply this in their organizations. The coaching has been a really important component. That is something we are trying to recommend to other programs trying to adopt this model,” Hopkins said.

In many ways, because of the success of supporting first-generation college students, there are many first generation professionals like Rawlins who simply need better support in the workforce. Their struggles can start on day one at a new job, with the the intimidation of the forms to be filled out, picking the right health insurance or 401(k) plan, not to mention learning the office lingo and politics. A study of first-generation students uncovers that “success in college is not simply a matter of students demonstrating academic ability. In addition, students must master the “college student” role in order to understand instructors’ expectations and apply their academic skills effectively to those expectations. Similarly, first-generation professionals express struggles in mastering the “professional adult” role, a task that takes as much social exposure and guidance as it does training and technical knowledge.

Today, more Americans than ever are college graduates, but low-wage work has expanded at the same time, making professional jobs more competitive and difficult to lock down. Recognizing the particular needs of first-generation professionals may be the key to bridging that gap between abundant education and sparse career opportunities many in the country face now. And with companies across the country asking for employees with more diverse backgrounds and a growing body of research showing this diversity enhances overall workplace performance, the time for buttressing these early-career workers is now.

Nov. 2 2017 11:53 AM

Where Is the Toughest Place to Report Sexual Harassment? It Might Be Capitol Hill.


As prominent leaders in Hollywood, publishing, and journalism face the immediate effects of sexual harassment allegations coming to light, Congress, too, is having its #MeToo moment, and it is long overdue.

The options for congressional staff to report an allegation as serious as sexual harassment are decidedly insufficient, with Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who recently came out with her own story of being assaulted as a congressional staffer, describing the process as “constructed to protect the institution—and to impede the victim from getting justice.”

I wrote about this issue with Hannah Hess in 2015. A self-identified 26-year-old man had written on an online message board limited to users physically inside the Capitol complex: "She has slapped my ass, talked about her vibrator, and has asked me sexual questions. I have ignored them but I am thinking about going to the member.” He was talking about his chief of staff and whether he should confide in the member of Congress they both worked for. One user warned him not to take the matter up the chain: "You need to accept that your career on the Hill will be over."

In lieu of an HR department, staffers have the Office of Compliance, a confidential agency within Congress, tucked away in a far corner, to whom they can report such claims. But many staffers do not even know this option exists, or how to find it. It’s far from where they work and unlike most offices, it’s not required by HR that these resources be posted on company bulletin boards. And many staffers are young, with little previous work experience and a strong desire to not do anything that could damage their career prospects.

Most Hill staff would be more likely to leave their jobs than face the repercussions for making public allegations. Now Rep. Speier is calling for a #MeTooCongress campaign to get other members and staff to speak out about the harassment complaints on Capitol Hill.

The very structure of offices on Capitol Hill makes speaking out about these issues difficult. Each House of Representatives office is structured like a small business with a group of approximately 20 staffers, split between D.C. and their district offices back home. (Senate offices are larger, some with their own office managers to run the HR operations.) A member of congress runs the office, and often has the final say in hiring and firing decisions. Most staffers hope that time spent working in the halls of Congress will yield valuable work experience and connections that will shape their careers for years to come. Despite the relatively low pay that many offices offer, the jobs are competitive, and an office can receive hundreds of résumés for an entry-level position. In this environment, it’s not surprising that people may be reluctant to come forward and risk jeopardizing their professional position.

The infrastructure in place for congressional staff today can be traced back to Newt Gingrich’s contract with America, which ushered in the Congressional Accountability Act, which was considered a spectacular bipartisan legislative feat at the time.

The goal was to hold Congress to the same standards as any other private sector workplace. The bill applied major labor and employment laws to Congress. It allowed congressional support agencies, like the architect of the Capitol, which does much of the maintenance and service for the Capitol complex, and the U.S. Capitol Police to organize unions (though the legislation deliberately prohibited members’ staff and some other congressional employees from doing so).

But members of Congress expressed concerns about staff filing grievances and the potential political fallout. The Office of Compliance was established as a compromise. Its function would be to implement and enforce the CAA, and provide confidential counseling and mediation as the first steps in the grievance process, thus sparing a member of Congress any embarrassment unless a complaint escalated to the highest levels.

Speier has criticized the Office of Compliance counseling system as “toothless,” pointing out that it’s designed to protect lawmakers rather than a harassed staffer. But the OOC has its hands largely tied, with limited resources and limited ability to proactively offer harassment prevention training to Congress (offices that do request such trainings are granted them, but the offices that are mindful enough to request such proactive interventions are likely not usually the ones that need it). There are a number of situations when counseling could be effective, particularly for when interoffice romantic relationships sour and staffers aren’t sure the best course forward. (Open up the New York Times wedding announcements, and you’ll find plenty of examples of Capitol Hill staff getting married to one another, which says nothing of the broken relationships along the way.)

But this system isn’t working for the most serious and sensitive concerns staff might seek to address. Seeking “confidential counseling” with the Office of Compliance is the first step in the formal dispute resolution process. I reported in CQ Roll Call last year that of the more than “2,100 requests for counseling filed with the Office of Compliance since its reporting began in 1996,” the vast majority came from employees not working for Congress.

There are more than three times the number of congressional employees as other support staff served by the OOC (Capitol Police and architect of the Capitol), according to numbers provided by Legistorm, yet only 12 percent of requests for counseling came from employees of the House of Representatives and 5 percent from the Senate. To believe these reports of wrongdoing reflect the reality of what’s actually taking place, we’d have to believe congressional offices are places with scant harassment or hostility. We have plenty of indications to the contrary.

Long before the fallout from the numerous allegations against Harvey Weinstein, the news has fluttered with headlines about members of Congress or senators forced to step down after allegations of sexual harassment come to light: Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., stepped down after sexually harassing teenagers who served as Senate pages, Rep. Eric Massa, D-N.Y., resigned after aides reported unwanted sexual advances (remember those awkward “tickle fight” descriptions?). Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., and Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., both resigned after affairs with their staffers surfaced. Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., resigned and continued collateral damage after his sexual proclivities continued (again and again) to make headlines and take down everyone else around him. Most recently, Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., stepped down after an affair was reported and a chief of staff’s memo was leaked, citing hostile office conditions.

And this is just the list of allegations against members of Congress. It says nothing about the high-ranking aides who could assert their authority in unwanted ways. In Rep. Speier’s now public account of being sexually assaulted when she was a congressional staffer, it was an aide, not a member of Congress, who was her alleged perpetrator.

The low rates of counseling sought have prompted the Office of Compliance to proactively reach out to Hill staff in recent years. “We could do a better job of communicating the rights and responsibilities of what the workplace statute gives staff,” said Alan Friedman, one of the OOC board members and a labor and employment law attorney.  “We are working with Congress to do that better through new avenues of communication.”

The combination of these efforts plus the unusual public scrutiny on Congress in general leads some to suggest the standards for workplace conduct in Congress are already high enough. “Congress is covered by a standard if the private standard had to live by they would shun. Congress is more transparent than the private sector and greater accountability to their customers,” said Brad Fitch, president of the Congressional Management Foundation.

He noted the financial disclosures, open information about salaries and spending, and the two-year election cycle of being held accountable to constituents.

Fitch is right, and Congress should be held to high standards. But it doesn’t make the situation any easier for aides caught in the crosshairs: Going public with a boss’s ill behavior can cost him his job, as well as the jobs of all the staffers who work for him, too. Political parties jump at the opportunity to pick up the seat when a member of Congress has resigned in disgrace—witness the current fervor for Democrats to try and pick up Murphy’s once-solidly safe seat after his resignation.

For a staffer working on issues they truly care about, what sort of pause does that give them before speaking out about harassment at work? Beyond getting more uptake of existing counseling it will likely take an entire culture shift—starting with some mandatory sexual harassment trainings—to change business as usual on Capitol Hill.

Nov. 1 2017 10:00 AM

Are Grandmas the Answer to America’s Child Care Woes?

For some parents, “bring your daughter to work” day is a one-time, special occasion. For Laura Cedillo, it was her daily reality. Given the exorbitant cost of child care in the Bay Area, she’d been forced to rely on friends to watch her 2-year-old daughter. Things changed, however, after she spent all night in the emergency room after her friend, who was a younger, less experienced caregiver, accidentally dropped her child—thankfully there were no serious injuries. She exhausted the list of capable friends who could fill in, and without any family nearby, Cedillo began sneaking her daughter into her cubicle at the Native American Health Center in San Francisco. In her mind, the risks associated with getting caught were less harsh than the risks associated with not showing up period. “It’s one of those horrible feelings where you not only think ‘How do you find child care?’ ” she says, “but how do you find qualified child care when you’re away from your family?” She felt desperate. “I gotta do what I gotta do, because I don’t want to get fired.”

At 2:30 a.m., Andria Carter gets off work from her shift as a clinical social worker at Children’s Hospital in San Francisco. She drives to pick up her two boys from her caregiver’s house only to find that her new baby boy is wide awake, again. He’s been unable to sleep through the night with this particular caregiver for two months, which has started to also wear on Carter. To make matters worse, the caregiver (licensed by the state) was charging Carter for days she was technically closed. “It seemed like she was making up the prices,” Carter said. “It was too much! I was working to pay for day care.”

Carter and Cedillo were out of options until they found the grandmothers of Gma Village.

Gma Village was born out of T Lab, a social innovation lab tackling poverty issues in the Bay Area. The founder of Gma Village, Catalina Garcia, and her team at T Lab were tasked with solving a problem: how to provide child care for low-income parents who work shifting schedules.

California is one the most expensive states for child care. According to the Better Life Lab’s Care Index, in California the average annual cost for in-home care is $30,184, and in-center care is $11,479. These costs are estimated for one child—add a second or third and those price tags skyrocket.

Parents who cannot afford in-home or in-center child care seek alternative options, lean on family or friends, rearrange work schedules, or exit the labor force altogether. Moreover, the options are slim for parents who work nights or unpredictable hours.

Through a design thinking process, the T Lab team began to map out the child care landscape in the Bay Area, with specific focus on Oakland. “We came in with beginner's mind. Two of the three of us are parents,” Garcia says, “and we know what it’s like to navigate child care, because child care is a challenge across income levels.” Garcia’s team spent six months talking to parents, subject matter experts, and child care providers. Once a week they also visited parent cafés, which are support centers run for parents with young children, and that’s where they found the grandmas. These grandmas were at parent cafés to be around kids and to help nurture their community. Many of the grandmas were there because their own grandchildren are far away or already grown. Garcia’s team began conducting community workshops to figure out whether the grandmas were the solution they’d been looking for. Garcia says, “The solution presented itself in one of those workshops,” as they found grandmas were just as eager as parents to participate.

Gma Village is essentially a peer-to-peer marketplace, like Lyft or It facilitates grandma-to-parent connections for child care services in underserved, low-income communities.

The grandmas attend an extensive orientation, which features background checks as well as a health and safety training. During orientation, they act out hypothetical scenarios, talk through questions for grandmas to discuss with parents, and learn about the village values: Nurture the children, be respectful, support one another, and keep open communication. Gma Village hosts regular meet and greets where parents, grandmas, and children get to know one another before entering into care arrangements. Once qualified, parents can log on to Gma Village and filter their search according to their specific care needs. They might seek care full-time, part-time, one-time, sporadically, or as backup. The suggested rate is $5 per hour, plus $2 for each additional child.

The cost structure came from another workshop in which Garcia’s team brought two pieces of information to the decision table: 1) how much informal providers are paid through the CalWORKS child care or Alternative Payment voucher systems and 2) how much low-income parents could pay for child care based on their incomes. With voucher programs, qualified families receive subsidized child care because the government directly pays their informal provider. Garcia’s research uncovered that providers are receiving about $2­–3 per hour from these voucher payments. Like many subsidized child care programs, parents are required to pay a “parent fee” or additional reimbursement rate to their provider. Parents, however, can’t always pay these fees, and providers don’t always collect. The village’s grandmas and parents created a mutually beneficial price structure that works within the state’s legal boundaries for exempt providers.

According to Garcia, a lot of the moms come into the village without a support network. If they did have one, most had already stretched it thin. “It’s hard to sustain those relationships when you need care all the time,” Garcia said.

Many of the grandmas worked previously in state or church day cares, Head Start programs, hospitals, and YMCA centers. A majority have additional certifications beyond health and safety, such as CPR, first aid, special needs education, and early literacy. What’s more, most have raised children, and many did so alone. They understand the challenges of child care firsthand and can appreciate the benefit of having an extended family. By uniting mothers without nearby family networks with older women who want to provide this care, the village is also creating extended family networks.

Laura & Parker.
Laura & Parker.

Gma Village

When grandma Tangie Parker first met Laura, she picked up Laura’s daughter outside of the BART station. Parker soon realized that Laura was paying to get back on and rushing to catch her train for work. So, Parker started meeting them inside BART. It’s these small acts of kindness that enabled them to build a foundation of trust. Laura recalls, “One time, I had to work later, and Ms. Parker waited for me at BART to give us a ride home.”

“At a regular day care, if there’s bad traffic and you’re late, you get fined for that. With me, I understand,” says Grandma Parker. “If you call me and let me know you’re running late, or you need to stop at the grocery store first, I’m OK with that!” That’s the Gma Village difference.

“I missed out on my children being little like this,” says Parker. “I wasn’t able to be a stay-at-home mom. I had to work in corporate America, wear a suit, punch the clock, and drop my daughter off at day care to be at work by a certain time. Now, I’m kind of like a stay-at-home mom,” she said.

Andria & Zada.
Andria & Zada.

Gma Village

For Grandma Parker and the Carter family’s grandma, Zada Flowers, the money is not their first concern but rather an additional bonus. “I get some backlash from people saying, ‘It should be more money,’ ” said Parker. But, she asks, “If it’s more money, how are we going to help the people who don’t have it?”

The children of Gma Village have also fostered strong relationships with the grandmas. So much so, that Andria’s baby now sleeps through the night, and her 2-year-old asks, “Are we going to Zada’s?” on Andria’s days off.

Garcia and the program are gathering more stories like these as they continue prototyping their services and attracting the financial support it would take to grow. Since they started in 2015, Gma Village has engaged over 200 parents and grandparents and facilitated over 500 child care exchanges. The program currently has 30 parents and 30 grandparents serving around 42 children.

Creating affordable child care on a national scale will take a lot more than small programs like Gma Village and more at the federal level than just expanding the child tax credit, although that’s a necessary piece to the puzzle. Gma Village’s three-generation approach to solving the challenge of child care is unique, but the idea behind it—getting communities to find their existing resources and put them into action—could be implemented anywhere. Maybe it shouldn’t take a village to guarantee affordable child care for working families, but until the structural changes come, the grandmas of the Bay Area are ready to help.

*Correction, Nov. 1, 2017: This post originally reported that Gma Village reached a "predetrmined agreed-upon" amount for childcare offered through their program. In fact, Gma Village suggests the rate, but individuals are free to negotiate a different one.

Oct. 31 2017 10:21 AM

Why a Fair Workweek Is the Working-Class Issue of Our Time

When Megan Vinkemulder started a job at Xerox in a small Oregon town a few years ago, she thought she had finally found a job with stability. After a series of fast food and restaurant jobs marked by unpredictable hours, her new one seemed to offer a haven: 40 hours a week she could count on.

But it took almost no time for the promise to be broken. She discovered those 40 hours could be sliced and diced any way her managers wanted. She’d work nights from 2 p.m.–10 p.m. and mornings from 4 a.m. to noon, often with just a day’s notice. She’d be asked to work two four-hour shifts split by three unpaid hours. She would go in on holidays and snow days. She’d be threatened with firing for any complaints.

As a result, Megan’s personal life went haywire. Her chaotic schedule strained her relationship with her boyfriend, forcing her to constantly cancel plans, and eventually they decided to call it quits. Because she needed to work every holiday, she couldn’t see her family for a year. Job hunting wasn’t an option—most job interviews were scheduled in the middle of her shifts.

Then she met an organizer from the Oregon Working Families Party who was working on a campaign to make hours more predictable and stable. Megan, who had never been involved in activism before, initially hesitated, worried about blowback from her boss.

But after connecting with others like her, Megan went all in. Soon she was knocking on doors, speaking publicly about her ordeal, and even traveling to the Oregon House of Representatives to give testimony.

Oregon passed the country’s first statewide fair workweek law in August. The law ultimately guarantees that working people at major retail, food, and hospitality companies get a heads-up about their schedules at least two weeks in advance, overtime pay for hours worked with less than 10 hours of rest between shifts, and the right to request a flexible work schedule.

It echoes laws in other cities, including San Francisco, Seattle, New York City, and Emeryville, a retail hub in the Bay Area. In San Jose, California, voters last fall passed the first-ever fair workweek ballot measure, voting overwhelmingly to give part-time workers the opportunity to work enough hours for a reliable paycheck by forcing businesses to offer more hours to part-time workers before hiring new workers. These laws make it easier for working people to balance work and family and predict their hours from week to week, ensuring they can better plan their budget and their time.

This movement for a fair workweek has emerged in response to the rapid expansion of low-wage service jobs over the past few decades. As many chains turned to workforce management technologies to squeeze more out of workers, hours for the growing service workforce became increasingly unpredictable. Big brands started to use “on-call” scheduling that required employees to be available around-the-clock. The recession accelerated these trends as employers turned many full-time jobs into part-time ones.

Even when the economy bounced back, the recession had made its mark, leaving millions of jobs that require workers to constantly scramble for hours with no guarantee they’d add up to cover basic costs.

Darrion Sjoquist
Darrion Sjoquist.

Working Washington

In response, workers began to organize to win back a say in their workweek. In Seattle, for example, the movement was led by Starbucks baristas like Darrion Sjoquist. Sjoquist’s mother worked as a Starbucks shift supervisor when he was in high school, coming home late at night and leaving before the sun was up. When his mom was called to work unexpectedly, Darrion picked up caretaking duties for his niece.

Years later, when Darrion became a Starbucks barista himself, he saw little had changed at the company and stepped up to organize alongside his co-workers to call on Starbucks to provide a fair work week. He led his co-workers in a letter-writing campaign to then-Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and even questioned Schultz at the Starbucks 2016 Shareholders Meeting about whether he supported fair working hours. Driven by thousands of baristas speaking out from Seattle to New York City to Los Angeles to Atlanta, Starbucks adopted 2 weeks advance notice and guaranteed 8 hours of rest between shifts. Seattle City Council unanimously passed its Secure Scheduling policy later that year, ensuring more reliable hours for Starbucks workers as well as many others throughout the city. Nationally, baristas continue to call attention to how lean staffing undermines these gains and makes it hard to have a stable income and even call out sick.

Workers like Sjoquist and Vinkemulder are changing the conversation on the concept of flexibility as a whole to include the conditions of the low-wage service sector. Peruse a variety of retail job listings and you’ll see “flexibility” listed as a perk of working for these companies. Flexibility can be a good thing for many workers, but as these workers learned, employers often use it as a code word for being ready to work 24/7.

The demand for open, endless availability can keep workers from advancing at work. A forthcoming Fair Workweek Initiative survey, for example, shows that open availability to work is a top criterion for promotion in retail—even as it puts stresses on workers’ families, budgets, and health that make keeping a job with such hours unsustainable.

The need for more predictable schedules has taken on even more importance as the Trump administration barrels forward to strip working people of basic rights—and as retail grows increasingly volatile. Department stores have lost more jobs in the past year than coal mining or steel production combined, but the White House has stayed virtually silent. In this moment of rapid change, the fair workweek movement is putting guardrails in place to protect working people as so much else is in flux.

Many Americans today feel pressure to respond to work whenever it pops up, working on weekends and late at night. Workers in the jobs with the least security, like Vinkemulder and Sjoquist, are leading the fight for hours that let us balance a job, a family, and a personal life. Each new reform shows workers across the landscape that it’s not too much to ask for a workweek that we can really count on.

Oct. 30 2017 10:00 AM

The Hidden Ways the Tax Code Hurts Women

For months, Americans not-so-patiently waited for the grand unveiling of the Republican solution to our tax woes. The GOP’s not-so-modestly titled “Unified Framework for Fixing Our Broken Tax Code”  promises to cut corporate taxes and charge low-income and working-class families even more. We'll learn more of the details on exactly how later this week. No one, however, expects the proposal to address the marriage penalty, an effect of joint filing, and a looming and long-standing problem with our current income tax code that particularly disadvantages working women.

Our tax system is a relic of 1948, when the system of joint filing for married couples began. It benefits an ideal of the family that was rarer than we think even back then: the (straight) breadwinner-homemaker nuclear married family. A 1947 study on the congressional record predicted that “only about one in ten families would benefit from joint filing.” Researchers suggest Congress agreed to joint filing less out of a desire to save couples money and more because, “After World War II, Congress wanted women to relinquish their jobs so those jobs could be filled by soldiers returning home.” Unlike in 1948 when this system was created, there is now nearly double the number of dual-income to single-earner marriages.

For most economists, the marriage penalty describes the effect of joint filing on low-income couples who get bumped into a higher tax bracket and lose important low-income benefits (this is also true but less devastating for high-income and equal-earning couples). But married women up and down the income ladder are unknowingly dealing with yet another tax specter when they get married: secondary earner bias.

Since the U.S. taxes families as a unit (rather than taxing individuals), the tax rate for the second earner, typically (due to the gender wage gap) a women, is set at her partner’s top marginal tax rate, much higher than it would be if she were a single filer (calculate your rate here). In other words, if a woman has a partner earning $50,000 a year, the very first dollar she earns is taxed as though it were her 50,001st dollar. As in all things tax code, how the penalty works for various kinds of couples is complicated, and what you see after you figure in deductions can sometimes mask the effects of the secondary earner bias, but the penalty is particularly hard on households where partners earn roughly the same amount of money.

“How do people respond to those incentives? Poor people don’t marry, rich people have a stay at home spouse, and people in the middle swim upstream,” says University of Southern California professor of law, economics, and political science Edward McCaffery, author of Taxing Women.

Any tax policy faces a conundrum between two kinds of equity: neutral, which says all people should be taxed the same, regardless of whether they are married or single, or whether they should be taxed differently based on their “ability to pay.” The tax code currently assumes that if someone has a partner earning a greater income than themselves, they are better able to pay a higher rate of taxes. But this doesn’t account for the cost of child and elder care that many dual-earner couples are paying so they can both work.

Women and men earn roughly the same until they have children. At that point, growth in the pay gap is attributed to women entering more flexible and lower paid (or part-time) work environments so they can take on more caregiving. The marriage penalty for the second earner may be just one more reason for women to stop working or reduce their hours. Additionally, according to Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, “Getting rid of the marriage penalty could serve to increase participation rates for women at the top and decrease the wage gap." This marriage penalty tends to hurt you worse if you work in high-paying jobs, since your top marginal tax rate is higher, as is the likelihood you’re married to another high earner. People don’t know this is happening, but it’s one of a series of issues faced when people get married, have kids, and realize it’s not worth it to work. The secondary earner penalty compounds with other issues to drive women from the workforce or at least into lower paying, more flexible jobs, even if they don’t know it’s there or understand how it’s hurting them.

One simple solution to tackling this problem could be having the U.S. revert back to taxing labor individually (simplifying the current six statuses), as it did at the beginning of the 20th century, so that the second earner isn’t penalized for working. This is, in fact, how most advanced economies tax workers.

In 1971, Sweden moved from joint to individual labor taxation. In studying the implications of this tax reform over time, Hakan Selin, associate professor at the Institute for Evaluation of Labour Market and Education Policy, found that women's labor force participation grew significantly after the 1971 reforms, especially among women with high-earning husbands. "If you want to increase female labor force participation, individual taxation is a good thing," says Selin. There’s more good news about this: By increasing the labor participation of women, tax revenue is also likely to increase, even though the tax contributions of a number of U.S. workers currently being penalized would drop. Individual taxation would not only be fair but fiscally responsible.

Politically, however, this may not be feasible. Individual taxation is “the most pro-woman thing to do, but a nonstarter, because it would hurt the one-earner family,” says McCaffrey. Since it seems unlikely we will find the political will to end incentives for more traditional families in U.S. financial policy (especially under the current Republican majority), there are other approaches that could help at the margins. Other groups have proposed tax deductions for low-income families who are worst affected by the penalty, and universal secondary-earner deductions would both help make the code fairer and allow couples to keep more of the secondary earner’s income.

The biggest roadblock to fixing the system is that most people don’t even know it’s broken—or at least in which particular ways it’s broken. Kimberly Palmer, a personal finance writer at NerdWallet and author of Smart Mom, Rich Mom, admits: “When we got married, it was around the time of a lot of other things impacting our taxes: buying a house and having kids. It was hard to isolate those changes. Taxes are so confusing that not even we had a clear understanding of what was going on.”

Unlike most Americans, Verenda Smith understands the tax code. That’s because she analyzes tax policies for a living as the deputy director of Federation of Tax Administrators. So when she and her husband considered divorce 20 years ago, the tax code was something that factored in. “I’d been married 14 or 15 years. Because we earned roughly the same income, and faced a marriage penalty, one of my first thoughts was that we have to get this [divorce] done by the end of the year.”

Smith’s divorce was finalized Nov. 30, 1998, and she calculates it saved her $1,500 in income taxes the next year. “It gave me something positive to work toward,” Smith said.

Introducing secondary-earner deductions or abolishing joint filing altogether would go a long way to fixing a system that, whether they realize it or not, makes no sense for the majority of American families today and adds one more obstacle to women gaining economic equality.

Oct. 27 2017 10:19 AM

Flexible Work Alone Won’t Create Gender Equality, but These Things Might

In her presidential address to the prestigious American Economic Association in 2014, Harvard economist Claudia Goldin argued that it’s not so much the government passing anti-discrimination or family friendly policies or men doing more at home (“although that wouldn’t hurt”) that would at last bring gender equality to the workplace. It’s flexible work.

By completely restructuring work and no longer disproportionately rewarding long and specific hours of face time in the office, Goldin argued, the gender pay gap could disappear; women wouldn’t be edged out of promotions, leadership, higher pay and even work itself once they started families—the pivot point that stalls most women’s work trajectories today.

Surveys show flexibility can certainly help women. In one study of 53 companies with at least half of the employees working remotely, 19 percent had a female CEO, compared to 4 percent of S&P 500 companies.

Research has shown that flexible work reduces work-life conflict, improves worker health, and increases work commitment and productivity, while improving job performance. However, much of that productivity boost comes in the form of longer work hours.

So how is it, somewhat perplexingly, that a series of recent studies show that flexibility doesn’t lead to greater gender equality but can actually make it worse?

In one recent study, researchers analyzed flexible work in Germany. They found, not surprisingly, that flexible work schedules tended to increase work hours for both men and women on full-time schedules.

But even though both German men and women increased the number of hours they worked when they began working flexibly, only the men benefited financially. Both the men and women studied earned more than those on fixed schedules because of the overtime hours they put in. But only the men appeared to get a flexibility bonus, earning between 1,000 and 2,200 euros a year more beyond pay for overtime hours.

Women working flexibly made more than women on fixed schedules due to overtime pay, but otherwise there were no additional financial benefits.

“This finding is certainly a disappointment if you’re thinking of offering flexibility as a way to promote more gender equality,” said Shelley MacDermid Wadsworth, who studies work-life issues as director of the Center for Families at Purdue University. “But the fact is that flexibility can lead to greater gender equality and to greater gender inequality. Both of these things are true.”

So how can both of these things be true? Because culture matters.

In the United States, where there are virtually no national family friendly policies, women are still expected to be primary caregivers and squeeze work in if, and when, they can. Women still do twice the housework and child care, time diary research shows, even when they work full-time or are the primary breadwinners.

In Germany, though it has more generous family policies, researchers argue, the traditional gender norms of male breadwinners and female caregivers are still powerful.

Those norms wind up influencing the way flexibility works. Employers tend to expect men to use a flexible work arrangement to get more education or professional development and be more productive at work. With women, employers assume they’ll use flexibility for caregiving, which they see as a distraction from work.

Indeed, another study found that while flexible work is most associated with women, and often stigmatized as an accommodation for workers who have less ambition or commitment, employers are more likely to approve men’s requests for flexible schedules, and reject women’s, especially women in low skilled or low-wage work who need schedule control the most.

They may not be wrong about these assumptions about how workers use their time. In a recent study of the U.S., researchers found that male doctors used their ability to control their schedule to simply work more, in keeping with the traditional norm that men are ideal workers able to dedicate themselves solely to the job. Nurses, however, in the more female-dominated profession, used their flexibility to manage home and caregiving responsibilities. In both cases, the authors argue, these highly skilled workers were using flexibility to “do gender,” or reinforce traditional gender roles.

But this doesn’t appear true across all segments of the workforce.

Women in the mostly female certified nursing assistant field had little access to flexibility—particularly so for women of color. Their low wages and the fact that many were the single or primary breadwinners for their families drove them to seek to work more shifts in their flexible “free” time, rather than give care. Unlike male doctors, men in the mostly male emergency medical technician occupation, which is lower paid, often organized their schedules around caregiving for their families. In both cases, workers disrupted traditional gender roles.

That doesn’t mean flexibility hasn’t helped promote gender equality. It has.

Flexible, reduced schedules were initially introduced in many white-collar workplaces in the 1990s as a way to keep highly skilled women in the workforce who were also still expected to carry on their traditional role of primary caregiver and facing intense time pressure juggling both roles. “We kicked our flexibility efforts into high gear in the mid-1990s, when we found that women were leaving at a rate that was 10 to 15 percentage points higher than men in the U.S.,” said Maryella Gockel, flexibility leader with the professional services firm EY.

Now, with formal flexible work, reduced and part-time schedules and informal day-to-day flexibility, along with other efforts, Gockel said EY retains men and women at the same rate. And they’ve reached their original goal of promoting women partners, with women making up about 30 percent of each new partner class every year. “Ultimately, the goal would be, at some point we would get to 50–50.” Gockel said.

So what can we learn about flexibility and its effect on gender from these seemingly contradictory findings? Truthfully, that flexibility alone can’t solve the puzzle of gender equality in the workplace. Here’s what else we will need.

Shifting gender norms on work and care

Millennials, more of whom are in dual-income marriages and partnerships compared to their Baby Boom bosses, expect to more fairly share work and home responsibilities and, regardless of caregiving, want flexibility and work-life balance. They may provide the push we need to get these changes from the top.

Because of these generational shifts, EY’s Gockel said the organization now offers up new role models of ideal workers—men and women who use formal and informal flexibility to volunteer for community service, to provide child and elder care, and a host of other reasons from designing a better commute, handling weather and illness, to living closer to family. For instance, when Mark Weinberger became EY’s global CEO, he chose to keep his family in Washington and work from there rather than move to company headquarters in New York, as his predecessors had.

Passing basic family policies

Family policies like paid family leave and accessible, affordable high quality child care, in addition to flexible work and schedule control as a right for all workers—policies that the United States currently does not have—are also critical to creating the conditions for gender equality.

These policies can shape culture. One recent study of immigrants and gender equality found that the country culture, institutions and policies shaped immigrants’ behavior and attitudes around work, care and gender. For instance, Russians living in Finland and Germans living in the Netherlands and Sweden, where the cultures and policies support more gender equality at work and home, embraced those views. But Russians living in Ukraine and Germans living in Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Greece, where more traditional gender norms held sway, took those views as their own.

Shifting economics and technology

In her work, Goldin found that pharmacy was among the most egalitarian professions, and that was solely a function of shifting economics and technology changing the way the work was organized.

Manar Morales, president and CEO of the Diversity and Flexibility Alliance who works with companies to implement flexibility for everyone, said technology and globalization are similarly changing the way work is organized in a host of other sectors. This could reduce the reward of long face-time hours and lead to more gender equality in a number of occupations. “As companies get more global, their teams need to know how to be just as effective collaborating with team members across time zones” and managing clients a world away. This means flexibility will become the default, simply the way everyone works, rather than the exception for someone with additional caregiving demands.

Changing how we value our nonworking time

Perhaps not all jobs can become more flexible, though many more than are now could. And perhaps some people don’t want to use flexibility to reshape traditional gender roles, feeling perfectly satisfied with the way things are now, Purdue’s MacDermid Wadsworth argues.

But the point is, we need a culture that at least gives men and women an opportunity to make a choice. And to do that, we need to start thinking about time in a completely different way.

In our work-saturated American culture, we tend to view any time not devoted to work as less important. But what about the kind of time that makes a life worth living? Time to care for ourselves and others, to connect, to wonder, to breathe. For flexibility to truly lead to gender equality—or saner lives—we need to once again value the time we need to, as the Greek philosophers said, refresh the soul.

Oct. 26 2017 10:00 AM

I’m Sandwiched Between Elder and Child Care—and I’m Not Alone

Several years ago, my parents were in town from Rochester, New York, and we visited my sister who lives nearby. While we were all sitting in the living room chatting and catching up, my dad asked for some ice to put in his glass of water. My sister apologized, saying she’d just refilled the ice tray in the freezer so it would be some time before any ice was available.

Five minutes later, he asked for ice again. And again, five minutes after that. At that point my sister and I stopped cold and looked at each other—and then looked at my mom. For some time, she had been flagging that she thought something was wrong with him.

A few weeks later while I was in town visiting them, I ran into my father’s doctor at a family friend’s party. I pulled him aside and told him what had happened and what I feared. He put it bluntly: “I think your dad has Alzheimer’s.”

For a while, my mother served as his sole care provider. Then, on another visit a few months later, I noticed things around the house slipping into disrepair. Lightbulbs were out and not getting replaced. And one day, I saw my dad stuffing things into the cushion of the couch to keep the spring from popping out.

I knew then that we had to do something. I called my brother and sister, and we started discussing it: How do we make sure he is getting the medical care that he needs? What other kinds of support do my parents need? Should we downsize their home? It was overwhelming, and I found myself crying yet knowing I needed to be strong for my mom and dad. I remember thinking, “When did this happen? When did I become the one taking care of my parents instead of my parents taking care of me?” I was in shock and in denial, but I knew I had to become the one responsible for their care and well-being.

So began a series of very difficult conversations with my parents. They made the decision to leave their home of 40 years to move in with me, my husband, and my then–5-year-old daughter. Fortunately, I was able to work remotely and take time off as needed to travel back and forth to Rochester and assist them. Over the holidays, we packed up all of their things and moved them to Maryland.

I was sad, knowing that I was leaving my childhood home, my security. But I also knew that I could no longer deny the changes taking place within my family.

Creating a multigenerational home has been an adjustment. At the same time that I’m now caring for my parents, I also have a young daughter to help care for and raise. The burden of care is falling heavily on family members across the country, and in particular those we affectionately refer to as the “sandwich generation,” (or I like to say, the “panini generation”), the 47 percent of Americans who have minor children in their homes and aging parents. From the early ’90s to the early 2000s, the number of Americans acting as caregivers for parents and children increased at a drastic rate, and the need for more of these dual caregivers will only continue to increase through 2030. As more baby boomers age and their need for care increases, the number of available caregivers is struggling to keep up, not only because Generation X is so much smaller than their parents’ generation, but because they’re trying to juggle caring for their children as well as their aging parents.

Sarita Gupta with her parents.

Gupta family

My husband and I often feel squeezed in the middle trying to manage the care needs on both ends of the spectrum. My responsibilities have tripled from one child to now three people depending upon me, and I’ve had to figure out how to meet these very different needs. We have had to make many adjustments. Currently, we’re modifying our house by adding stair lifts to adjust to my parent’s physical needs. With my dad’s Alzheimer’s and my mom’s arthritis, they could no longer drive. So we had to teach them how to utilize technology to use car-sharing and taxi apps so they could get around independently. With more people living in the house, things get dirty faster, so we’ve had to hire a housecleaning service. We also have to negotiate everything—from who will do the cooking to which movie we want to watch as a family.

It’s been an emotional challenge for all of us as well. My 7-year-old daughter loves spending time with her grandparents. I feel very lucky that she’s growing up with them, and I’m happy that they’re exposing her to more of our Indian culture and language. But there are times that she only wants quality time with me or my husband, like reading a book to her or playing with her, and feels like she has to fight for our attention. It’s been a learning curve in balancing adequate one-on-one time with her.

Being pulled in both directions can be complicated and overwhelming. Luckily I have a job that offers time off, via a paid leave policy, and control over my schedule. I could not maintain my position or my level of leadership without this flexibility as well as help from those around me. I’m grateful to have options. But most families aren’t as fortunate as they try to navigate their care needs.

The United States is the only developed country that does not guarantee paid family leave. According to Family Values at Work, a mere 14 percent of people working in the private sector have access to paid family leave to welcome a new child, recover from a medical condition, or take care of a sick family member. And more than 37 million people employed in the private sector have no paid sick leave at all.

Often, we talk about the lack of paid leave as a problem for new parents. This means many new moms and dads have to get back to work sooner than they would like, rather than recovering from childbirth or spending time bonding with their new child. Instead, they’re forced to worry about how extended leave might impact their income or position in the workplace.

It also means people across the U.S. don’t have adequate time to deal with serious health conditions or take care of aging or ill family members. Paid family leave, medical leave, and sick days all are critical for working people to have the freedom and flexibility to care for themselves and their families.

Our system for supporting family caregiving as a whole—from child care to long-term care—is broken. While the fight continues at the federal level, more states are recognizing the urgent need for more flexible approaches to juggling work and care. This July, Hawaii Gov. David Ige signed a bill (HB 607) establishing a landmark program to assist families with their caregiving responsibilities, elder care included.

The novel Kupuna Caregivers Program (named after the Hawaiian term for elder or grandparent) will offer relief for those struggling to juggle work and family. It will provide up to $70 per day to help cover the various costs of long-term care. The program’s goal is to keep more people in the workforce while also providing quality care for aging family members because no one should have to choose between their retirement security and caring for their parents as they age. It also fixes one of Medicare’s shortcomings for working families, as the social insurance program does not reimburse most long-term care costs outside of a nursing facility.

Washington state is considering a similar bill. Also this year, advocates in Maine and Michigan are launching state-level family care initiatives that would be financed by creating a state tax on income above $118,000, to be shared between employer and employee.

Programs like these aren’t just important in providing working people a better balance while they juggle work and family, but keeping them in the workforce at all. A report from the Brookings Institute and the Hamilton Project finds the cost of care to blame for a steady drop in the number of adults who are employed or looking for a job. More than 70 percent of those surveyed in their study said that caregiving kept them out of the workforce. Too often caregivers, who predominantly are women, have to leave their jobs because the burden of family care is not affordable or sustainable. And they often neglect their own health and personal needs.

My journey has been tough and beautiful all at once. Having my parents move in with us has been a tremendous relief, and lifted emotional burdens that were manifesting in my own health and well-being due to stress and worry. My husband, parents, and even my daughter have created what I call a “Team of Us,” an internal family care team where we each play different support roles. As we care for my parents, they take care of us in various ways as well, picking up my daughter from school and caring for her when my husband and I travel. My daughter also pours her own love into our family dynamic. I’m very fortunate to have support from all sides. Our arrangement has made me appreciate the real struggles families and care providers are facing. It has inspired me to help build and grow a national movement of families and care providers for paid leave, a crucial first step to so many others the U.S. must take to truly value caregiving relationships and to address the needs of millions of families.