Remote or Flexible Work Will Ease the Clash between Motherhood and the Workplace
Motherhood. Not only a biological distinction with caregiving responsibilities that are rooted in economic constraints, Motherhood is also a culture; well actually it’s a subculture. To see that distinction, let’s first define what culture is.
Culture is defined by Neuliep and Jandt (2021) as a “community or population sufficiently large enough to be self-sustaining — that is, large enough to produce new generations of members without relying on outside people.” By this definition, mothers are not self-sustaining because of that little detail called biology. But motherhood bears all the hallmarks of a culture, like cultural identity, “the identification with and perceived acceptance into a group that has a shared system of symbols and meanings as well as norms for conduct” (Neuliep and Jandt, 2021). Culture or subculture, the argument could be made that it is a culture because mothers fit into Hofstede’s four categories of culture.
“… symbols, rituals, values, and heroes. Symbols refer to verbal and nonverbal language. Rituals are the socially essential collective activities within a culture. Values are the feelings not open for discussion within a culture about what is good or bad, beautiful or ugly, normal or abnormal, which are present in a majority of the members of a culture, or at least in those who occupy pivotal positions. Heroes are the real or imaginary people who serve as behavior models within a culture. A culture’s heroes are expressed in the culture’s myths, which can be the subject of novels and other forms of literature.” (Neuliep & Jandt, 2021)
Motherhood has all four elements of culture. Symbols in the shared experience of mothers everywhere. The ability to recognize the joys and struggles of other moms, regardless of language. Rituals in the regular actions demanded of childrearing. Values in that motherhood reshapes the woman through bonding that makes over her values and prioritization, putting her children at the top. Heroes in that mothers turn to mommy bloggers, doctors/nurses, and other moms, even their own, as role models and for guidance and encouragement.
Despite all these arguments about motherhood as a culture, we know that motherhood is not a dominant culture. Women grow new humans, birth them, keep them alive and healthy, feed them with their bodies. That may make women the matriarchs of their homes and families, but once women step outside the bounds of that insular world, they are subject to a harsh intercultural clash between motherhood and current workplace culture. What is it about “productivity culture” or contemporary workplace culture that clashes with motherhood? Why are mothers, the ones who give birth to us and our next generations, who literally build nations, the ones who don’t fit?
Referred to in her book Pay Up: The Future of Women and Work, author Reshma Saujani calls the clash between women and work an “open secret.” “The long, inflexible hours and full dedication that most jobs demand conflict directly with the work of gestating, birthing, and caring for our children and running our homes.” (Saujani, 2022). Entrenched in history, she says “the story of domestic inequality and working women’s struggles isn’t new; this reality has been hiding in plain sight for years” (Saujani, 2022). And not just a poor woman’s burden, she says “All of us, no matter what neighborhood we live in or what jobs we do, grapple with the realization that we are trying and constantly failing to catch up.” Just about everything in the traditional workplace clashes with motherhood. The long hours, the required physical presence, the fixed schedule, required meetings, and demanded availability. This kind of a workplace is just as needy as a newborn baby.
Is it possible that the workplace is as needy as a child? Depending on the workplace, yes. A job in a restaurant is as needy and possibly needier than a child. While I strain to think there’s a better model for food service jobs than to be physically present, why does an office-based job have to be structured so inflexibly? Remote work and flexibility of hours and the combination of the two are here and coming to a workplace near you, soon. But will that do it? Will that fix it for mothers in the workplace?
Remote work and flexible hours will fix many of the problems. Because mothers are the primary caregivers to children in the household (Reynard, 2018), they are the ones who need flexibility — to pick up sick kids from school, stay home when a child has a fever first thing in the morning, to breastfeed a child, attend school events, and more. Are those things important for a father to do as well? Yes, absolutely. That’s why remote and flexible work benefits women and men, no matter who the primary caregiver is.
Currently, it’s traditional of on-site workplace culture to track your time and attendance. If a working mom misses too much work from having to do any of the above-mentioned caregiving duties, she is almost immediately penalized with reduced time off. The extra time she needs to care for a child will be taken first from any accrued PTO time. If there’s no more PTO, she faces being disciplined for missing too much work. If unpaid time away is permitted, then she risks missing pay for time caring for a child. This is an impossible and unsustainable scenario for a mother, and her family.
Children Need Care and Supervision
After two plus years of a pandemic, we know the social ills of sending sick children to school. Even if she manages to get the sick child to school, later that day, mom will get a call from the school to pick up the unwell child. Leaving a sick child at home alone is not usually an option. “The National SAFE KIDS Campaign recommends that children not be left alone before the age of 12. Many other children will not be ready until later than that. Also, experts caution that older siblings are generally not ready for the responsibility of supervising younger children until the age of 15 or older” (Florida Department of Children and Families, 2019). A sick child is an inevitability. Discipline or lack of pay for a mother who misses work to care for a child ultimately punishes the child. Remote work or flexible hours could alleviate this punishment laid on families.
Remote & Flexible Work Eases Motherhood & Caregiving
Employers should, when the job roles allow, provide remote or hybrid work as the default. Besides scaling back on office real estate expenses, this default work scenario would help mothers’ needs for irregular time away be less obvious. Motherhood wouldn’t be something you have to stuff into the edges of time-off policies and lunch hours. It would just be part of being a person, the same as men and non-caregiving employees, who would also benefit. Employees of all ages and family roles would be able to schedule their lives — doctors appointments, grocery shopping, or even coffee breaks — at their convenience. And remote/hybrid work would be much more convenient.
Flexible work hours, similarly, would provide employees, especially mothers the ability to schedule around predictable peak times of demand. Let’s face it, the traditional workday of Monday through Friday 8 am to 5 pm doesn’t jibe well with the school schedule of Monday through Friday 8:30 am to 3 pm (or whatever other variations exist of the typical school day). How is it that children are let out of school two hours before parents get off work? That makes no sense. And if it used to ever make sense, perhaps 60 years ago when we were a more agriculturally based country of families, that’s no longer the case. America, meaning legislators, schools, but especially employers, have got to wake up and not perpetuate the clash between home and work life. I’m not here to propose revamping the education system, but instead to champion the peaceful co-existence of what it means to be a family in the US. Employers have much more autonomy than public schools in determining the rules of engagement for employees. By the same measure, they can make or break the daily existences and quality of life of their employees.
Employees are key stakeholders in every organization. They matter. Workplaces have made strides in this arena since the days of industrial factories that did little to protect workers’ safety, let alone help them have a good day at the office. Beyond that, employee experience is as important, if not more so, than customer experience.
“Employees are primary internal stakeholders. Employees have significant financial and time investments in the organization, and play a defining role in the strategy, tactics, and operations the organization carries out. Well run organizations take into account employee opinions, concerns, and values in shaping the strategy, vision, and mission of the firm.” (Lumen learning, n.d.)
Not only are employees vital to the success of the organization, they deserve to feel valued for being people. And no one needs to feel valued more than mothers. Women as employees are just as productive, valuable, and dedicated as men; that is not in question. The question is, why do workplace structures still exist that continue to punish employees who are mothers? Remote and flexible work would go a long way to show a working mom that she is valued, as an employee and a mother.
Workplaces have their own culture. We know that culture is rooted in “how we’ve always done it.” While religious, national, and ethnic cultures can embrace those claims on tradition as justification for certain practices, I argue that the workplace cannot. The modern workplace is made up of too many participants from different cultures and economic pressures to be so insular as to remain stagnant. The modern workplace is subject to legal and marketplace changes that require they be more nimble than other cultures. Further, workplace culture can be designed around more important ideas like core values versus control-based working conditions like hours of work, location, and office décor.
The time for a smarter way to work, that works for everyone, has come. The COVID-19 pandemic forced this into trial mode, a sort of beta version. Remote, hybrid, and flexible work passed the test; let’s keep this version of work. Mothers cannot be expected to choose the workplace over her family’s needs, and workplace culture should not punish mothers for being moms. Mothers need a means to support their families without threat of losing promotions, raises, wages, or employment altogether just on the basis that they are primary caregivers.
Florida Department of Children and Families. (2019). Tools and tips for parents and caregivers: When to leave your kids home alone. MyFLFamilies.com. https://www.myflfamilies.com/service-programs/child-welfare/caregivers/when-to-leave-kids.shtml
Lumen Learning. (n.d.) Business stakeholders. https://courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-management/chapter/business-stakeholders/
Neuliep, J.W. & Jandt, F.E. (2021). Foundations of intercultural communication (Electronic Edition). SAGE Publications.
Reynard, C. (2018, April 4). Women still primary carers in most households. YourMoney.com https://www.yourmoney.com/insurance/women-still-primary-carer-households/
Saujani, R. (2022). Pay up: The future of women and work (and why it’s different than you think). One Signal Publishers.