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In the past day, I’ve been interested to read two articles, the first from Bloomberg Businessweek (“Alpha Dads: Men get serious about work-life balance”) and the second, a rejoinder in Kveller by Jordanna Horn (Don’t We All Need Better Work-Life Balance, Regardless of Our Genitalia?). They touch on one of my obsessions, the lack of societal and workplace support for families. In particular, I am an advocate for a reassessment of how the American workplace is organized. (I have a feeling that his will be a recurrent theme in this blog.)

I consider myself lucky. As a Jewish educator, I hopped back into work a mere three weeks after my son’s birth, returning to my students as a part-time teacher in Jewish supplemental schools with bleary eyes but a joyful heart. I only worked about ten hours a week out of the home for the first year (with additional prep time at home). I loved that my husband was feeding, playing with, and generally taking the lead role with our son two half-days each week, including one evening shift. My husband was seamlessly getting the kid to bed when many of the other dads in our circle hadn’t even had the chance. Meanwhile, I loved having conversations that didn’t involve discussions of bodily functions. I particularly enjoyed how my work helped me maintain a sense of self separate from my child. It goes without saying that all of this was only possible because (a) my husband’s salary is sufficient to pay for most of our needs, with my salary basically paying off my own student loans; (b) my husband has worked for two companies which respect their employee’s needs to schedule work hours according to familial needs (if he’s taking care of business, does it really matter if he’s home by 3:30 every Wednesday).

Many of the primary-caregiver moms (and occasionally dads) I met at the park, at synagogue, and elsewhere were fiercely jealous. Some of them also had part-time jobs, but these positions were often relatively mindless and less challenging than my highly educated, professional companions desired. These parents felt like their part-time work was neither personally fulfilling nor furthering their careers. Other parents, who worked full-time, were jealous, too, and would have loved to work part time but either work in fields with few meaningful part-time positions or existing part-time work is insufficiently remunerative for their family’s needs. (Do not mistake this for a general statement disparaging full-time working parents. Families of all types should be able to choose work schedules that work best for  parent’s/parents’ personalities, preferences, and economic requirements.)

Which leads me to my list of suggestions…

  1. Make quality part-time work available more broadly to professionals. Make positions available that are not shunting men and women who put family first onto a “mommy-track,” and make those positions both remunerative and substantive in challenge. While raising my child during the past (nearly) four years, I have mastered new skills due to workplace trainings, added an additional workplace, and become better at my job. All part-timers should be so lucky. But there’s a catch–
  2. If and when I return to full-time work as an educator, who knows if my years of part-timing will eclipse my years of experience or the quality of my work product? Allow fluid movement of professionals during different life-stages between full- and part-time work. People should not be punished by lower salaries or side-lined into lesser work because they take time to parent or care for aging or ill family members. One of the strengths of Leaning In is its promotion of the non-linear career trajectory.

There are a number of ways to create part-time work. Some of these strategies are already integrated into a few corporate cultures. I’ll leave the most radical for last.

  • Encourage and enable job-sharing. Many, if not most, jobs can be separated into discrete task-loads and spread across a team, rather than assigned to an individual person. Managing team-members or job-sharers requires specialized skill-sets–tracking tasks thoroughly, clear communications about deadlines, assignment of responsibilities, and providing a uniform experience for clients. (I think that this self-awareness actually improves work product, but I have nothing to back up that gut feeling.) To facilitate teams, special consultants should be available to mentor teams, partners, and their managers in the necessary skills to make job-sharing work.
  • Set realistic expectations about how much time tasks should take and pay for the work accordingly. Often, employers are liars about how much time they expect workers to spend on their task. “Half-time” should only be twenty hours a week, unless there are known “crunch times” in that industry to which both the employer and the employee agree. “Full-time” should only be forty hours a week, with the same caveat. If an intelligent, well-trained, qualified professional cannot complete the assigned tasks in forty hours of the week, then it is not a “full-time” job, and you should probably be hiring some additional help.
  • Stop rewarding workaholics. Many work places now force people who have accrued maximum vacation time to take days off. Working excessive hours may create more work product, but I doubt it improves work quality. Overworking creates a competitive atmosphere in which hours clocked somehow becomes a measure of dedication to the job or the company and perpetuates a false measure of efficacy. Finally, overworking distorts the value of work, since it skews perceptions needed to match task to remuneration. (Once again, I have nothing to back myself up… which just shows you why I am not an academic or a journalist.) I am actually not entirely sure how to do this rather than shutting down workers’ computers mid-task if they exceed the number of hours for which they are paid–which doesn’t really seem particularly practical or humane.
  • Stop limiting critical benefits such as health insurance to “full-time” workers. Why should a family in which two parents would like to each work thirty-hour weeks be unable to do so because one of them must have access to medical, dental, and other benefits? Similarly, why should a grandfather have to choose between health insurance and providing daycare for grandkids? I’ll stop here and leave the healthcare debate for another occasion, but I see a clear connection between our society’s norm of full-time work for most adults and the way we see healthcare as a “benefit” to reward (or–more cynically–to sustain the usefulness of) workers rather than as a basic right. Both perspectives see workers as a resource to be exploited rather than as human beings with basic needs extending outside of the workplace.

I have no idea if any of these have any validity at all… but I look forward to hearing your responses!

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