Why pay equity and work-life balance aren’t just women’s issues

Jena McGregor is The Washington Post’s Post Leadership columnist.

Throughout this campaign, the candidates have talked endlessly about the economy and how to create jobs. But we’ve barely started the conversation we should be having about how those jobs can fit better into our increasingly busy lives.

A 43-year-old parent I spoke with this past week didn’t mince words when it came to the exchange, in the second presidential debate, about the challenge of balancing work and family: “I found it disturbing, the assumption that this is a women’s issue.”

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During the debate, you’ll recall, Mitt Romney said that one reason he was able as Massachusetts governor to recruit women into top roles was that he “recognized that if you’re going to have women in the workforce that sometimes you need to be more flexible,” such as letting them leave at 5 p.m. so they can make dinner and be home with their children.

The parent in question, however, is not a super-mom miffed at Romney’s 1950s imagery while she cleans up toddler messes with one hand and taps away on her BlackBerry with the other. Rather, Nate McKitterick is a Silicon Valley lawyer and father of two school-age children who does most of the dinner prep in his family and has worked 80 percent time at his law firm since 2004, before he made partner.

“This is a family issue,” he says. “As my wife’s spouse, as the person who is sharing her paycheck, as the person who’s helping to raise our children, these are my issues, too.”

Romney’s “binders full of women” comment may have gotten the most attention after the town hall debate. But the snickering about his awkward, and now famous, phrase overshadows the most telling part of the Republican nominee’s response to a question about how to address gender inequalities in the workplace.

“He was trying to be chic and modern, but he sounded unbelievably traditional about men’s and women’s roles,” says Joan Williams, the founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. “It was just a complete generational miscue.”

It also highlighted one of the problems with the ongoing discussion about pay equity, flexible work policies and getting more women into leadership roles. When these topics are positioned as women’s issues, we miss an opportunity to make everyone care more about them. All too often, they get thrown around in campaigns to win the hearts of female voters, or they act as window dressing in corporate human resources materials. President Obama, to his credit, did say in the second debate that “these are not just women’s issues, these are family issues,” following a comment about contraception and child care. If that happened more often, and if we talked more about why they matter to everyone — men and women, baby boomers and millennials — progress might come faster.

For instance, to help close the gender pay gap, policies ranging from more affordable child care to better sick-leave standards may be needed. But it would also help to stop talking about pay equity as just a women’s issue when, at least for dual-income families, it’s also a household concern that affects the choices couples make. When women earn more, it’s easier for men to stay home with the kids, take risks such as starting a business or go back to school for an advanced degree.

What can get lost is that pay equity “opens up opportunities for men, too,” says Catherine Hill, the director of research for the American Association of University Women and a co-author of a study released Wednesday that found that, one year out of college, women’s earnings were 82 percent of men’s.

Similarly, promoting more women into leadership roles not only is important to women but also has many benefits for organizations, such as lower retention costs, easier recruiting of talented workers and better overall performance. For instance, a recent Credit Suisse analysis of nearly 2,400 companies found that those with women on their boards of directors tended to have better share performance, higher average returns on equity and better average profit growth than those without female directors. The study names seven reasons that gender diversity on boards is correlated with better performance, such as women bringing different leadership skills to the table and their tendency to avoid risk.

And McKinsey & Co. showed that companies with at least three women in senior management positions scored higher on a set of organizational criteria than firms with no women in top leadership roles. But despite all the evidence, too many leaders still relegate such efforts to women’s groups or poorly funded human resources initiatives rather than making them part of management’s top priorities.

And of course, workplace flexibility is not just something that mothers of young children want; it’s something that’s increasingly important for both men and women in today’s always-on, 24/7 work culture. In fact, it may be more so for men: A 2011 report by the Families and Work Institute, “The New Male Mystique,” found that the rise in “work-family conflict” — the degree to which work and family responsibilities interfere with each other — has been especially high among fathers in dual-earner households. In 1977, just 35 percent of these fathers reported feeling work-family conflict, but that leapt to 60 percent in 2008. For mothers in dual-earning couples, meanwhile, the numbers remained relatively stable: 41 percent in 1977 and 47 percent in 2008.

Even if flextime policies and work-life programs are designed for everyone, some men are hesitant to take advantage of them. Data from the Families and Work Institute reveal that men and women adopt informal flexible hours — occasionally changing their start or end times — in roughly similar numbers, but that men are far less likely to adopt part-time hours than women. Williams points to a forthcoming study in a journal she’s co-editing that found that while young men say they are just as interested in flexible schedules as young women, they didn’t plan to ask for them nearly as much, partly out of fear that they’d be seen as less masculine. “In many workplaces, men can’t realistically take flex schedules without raising eyebrows,” Williams says.

In practice, many bosses reinforce these fears, says Cali Williams Yost, the author of “Work + Life: Finding the Fit That’s Right for You” and a consultant based in Madison, N.J. “I’ve seen male leaders very willing to support junior women with flexibility,” she says. “But when it comes to senior men supporting junior men, men are having more trouble. I’ve had a number of them say: ‘I didn’t have that when I was their age. I missed all my kids’ soccer games.’ ”

That hasn’t stopped some men from asking anyway. McKitterick thinks he was the first man in his law firm to reduce his hours for family reasons — which, in the parlance of lawyers, means working 80 percent of his peers’ superhuman schedule or, as he calls it, “Silicon Valley hours.” But since then, more men in his firm have taken advantage of the policy, and more important, he believes, it’s paved the way for more women to do so, too.

“Women can’t think they’re treated the same when it comes to that kind of request until it’s clear that men aren’t being stigmatized by it either,” he says. “It’s not a mommy track anymore when someone can make partner — even a man — on a reduced-hours schedule.”

Yes, the pay equity gap is a critical issue for women, and simple fairness is reason enough to change it. And it’s true that because women disproportionately shoulder the responsibilities for child care and elder care, flexible work arrangements and work-life balance will always be important to them.

But the more we involve everyone in resolving these issues, and the more people in charge recognize that these issues affect everyone, the more likely it is they’ll get the attention — and the changes — that are still needed.

mcgregorj@washpost.com

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