The dilemma is gut wrenching: you’re a new mother and you’ve just ended whatever amount of maternity leave, paid or unpaid, you were able to scrape together. Maybe you work at one of most generous companies, and got six paid months; maybe your employer doesn’t offer any paid leave, and you could only afford a few unpaid weeks away. Or perhaps you couldn’t afford any time off at all. That means returning to work while seeking somewhere to leave a child who’s 6 months old, or younger.
This is a tough challenge financially, logistically and emotionally. Infant childcare can run as much as $16,000 a year. And that’s if you can find somewhere to take such a young child that has open slots, fits into your schedule, and is a place you can trust. Then you have to make peace with leaving a baby you’re just getting to know in someone else’s hands. The problem doesn’t necessarily get better, though, as your child gets older. She still needs care while you go to work, care that is extremely pricey and hard to find.
Given these hurdles, women often feel that it’s easier for them to spend more time with their own children and less time at work. It solves at least part of the emotional, logistical, and financial headaches.
Now some companies are trying to help them do that. Vodafone announced this week that in addition to providing 16 weeks of fully paid maternity leave, new mothers can opt to work 30-hour weeks at full pay when they come back for up to six months. The startup PowerToFly, meanwhile, has launched with the goal of connecting mothers with work they can do remotely from their homes. Both aim to ease women’s dilemma of balancing work hours against the hours needed to care for a child.
But in doing so, they may end up perpetuating systemic problems with how women, and specifically mothers, are viewed at work.
Mothers are already looked upon as aliens in the workplace. Just having a child makes a woman appear less competent at her job and less committed to her work. Once women become mothers, they are seen as poor candidates for promotions and raises, so their wages take a hit. Too often, coworkers and bosses assume women who give birth will be irrevocably distracted by their children and end up either checking out or leaving altogether.
Though it’s unfair, when a mother becomes absent from the office—no matter how hard she may actually be working—she could be playing into the assumptions people already had that her family will take precedence over her work. Women with a flexible schedule are seen as being less dedicated and less motivated to advance in their careers. Employees who work remotely get lower performance reviews and get fewer raises and promotions. Whether warranted or not, many people still see face time as an indicator of how hard a person works. Programs like the ones Vodafone and PowerToFly are offering could end up further sidelining mothers, not serving them.
Mothers who aren’t in the office don’t just end up making themselves invisible. They also stand out as being different than everyone else. Policies that give them even more ways to be absent—shorter workweeks only for them, flexible schedules, or working from home—serve to put mothers in a separate category, rather than better integrating them and their needs into the workplace.
So the question must be asked as to why only one gender is being offered these ways out. Men are actually rewarded at work when they have children, and they aren’t expected to change their work habits when they have kids. But fathers are increasingly worried about work/life balance and interested in being involved parents. Why shouldn’t Vodafone offer new dads the same reduced schedule? Why shouldn’t a startup aim to connect all parents with remote jobs? Until fathers are also seen as and act like working parents, mothers will be singled out as different.
And parents aren’t the only ones who need to work less. The 40-hour workweek is a thing of the past; Americans work longer hours than many developed peers whose economies are just as robust. Why even target parents with these policies instead of thinking of ways to reduce hours while keeping productivity high?
I have all the sympathy in the world for women looking at a set of tough choices and concluding they’ll be better off working from home or reducing their hours. It’s understandable that these options can help make a stressful time less stressful. And I’m not one to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. But sometimes our individual solutions make progress toward more lasting, important change harder to achieve. The more we take mothers out of the workplace, the more they keep being put in a category all by themselves.