'At The End Of The Day, The Work-Life Balance Debate Is Not Just About Women'

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Photo: Steven Harrell

Everyone has an opinion on Ann-Marie Slaughter’s controversial cover piece for The Atlantic, ‘Why Women Can’t Have It All.’But no matter where you stand, Slaughter has struck a nerve with the American people — and affirmed that we have a way to go with establishing equality in the workplace.

“While employers shouldn’t privilege parents over other workers,” writes Slaughter, “too often they end up doing the opposite, usually subtly, and usually in ways that make it harder for a primary caregiver to get ahead.”

And this imbalance is hurting companies’ bottom lines. As Slaughter points out, companies that have progressive work-life balance policies are more productive on the whole:

Examining 130 announcements of family-friendly policies in The Wall Street Journal, [University of New Mexico researcher Michelle] Arthur found that the announcements alone significantly improved share prices. In 2011, a study on flexibility in the workplace by Ellen Galinsky, Kelly Sakai, and Tyler Wigton of the Families and Work Institute showed that increased flexibility correlates positively with job engagement, job satisfaction, employee retention, and employee health.”

Today, adult women are one of the largest demographics leaving the workforce. According to the Bureau of labour Statistics, over the past year “1.3 million jobs have been created, with 90 per cent of those positions going to men.” This is due, in part, to the societal norms we have cultivated that make it difficult for women to work and care for their families. Creating a new culture centered around the work-life balance could help change these figures.

In some ways, small businesses are more adaptable and better equipped to have their female employees achieve a work-life balance than their larger counterparts. Women don’t have to navigate a bureaucracy or compromise with the HR department. Yet, a small business doesn’t have the resources to provide a on-site daycare and in-the-building dry cleaning, or college scholarships and loans for employees’ children. 

The good news for small businesses is that many policies that can dramatically improve a woman’s work-life balance can be implemented at little or no cost to the company. These policies include:

1. Flex Time is an adjustable work schedule that allows employees to choose when they start and end their workdays. Instead of arriving at the office at 9 and leaving at 6, one could arrive at the office at 7:30 and be out the door by 4:30. For women whose spouses have inflexible work hours, the plasticity of when to “punch in” could be the solution for getting the kids on the school bus, or picking them up from soccer practice.

2. Telecommuting is ideal for employees who work independently and is widely considered to be one of the best perks a company can offer, as it affords the employee what is perhaps the ultimate degree of flexibility.

3. Job SharingIf an employee wants to retain her position but has to reduce her hours for any number of reasons, job sharing could be the solution. This perk allows two employees to share the same role and alternate hours and responsibilities.

4. Paid Maternity Leave may be more costly for the employer than the aforementioned benefits, the value it offers women is incalculable. Though the Family and Medical Leave Act entitles American women 12 weeks of unpaid leave, companies with fewer than 50 paid employees are exempt from this.

According to ThinkProgress, “in 2011, only 11 per cent of private sector workers and 17 per cent of public workers reported that they had access to paid maternity leave through their employer.”

Women deserve paid maternity leave, a right that is afforded in 175 countries worldwide. That said, some of the most progressive companies are offering paternity leave, as well — and Slaughter argues for flexible leave schedules for any family matter. This would allow for those taking care of an ageing parent, for example, to take time off without fear of losing their job.

At the end of the day, says Slaughter, this work-life balance debate is not just about women. It’s about creating more progressive, flexible office cultures that benefit all employees and improve productivity. And that’s the kind of company culture that attracts — and retains — the very best employees.

This article originally appeared on American Express Open Forum.

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