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Are Child-Friendly Workplaces Undermining Moms?

As if being paid less than men wasn't bad enough. A study conducted by Harvard Business School's new Gender Initiative concluded that professional women who are mothers are given fewer opportunities for advancement, because employers assume they don't want to travel or take on additional assignments, in favor of spending time with their children. The study, which focused on women working in business fields, also suggests that women with children are continuously perceived to be less invested in work than their male counterparts.

Interestingly, men who are fathers do not face the same type of treatment, because, of course, men don't help raise children.

Obviously, men are all living in a Don Draper-like existence, and go meet clients and get liquored up after work. Meanwhile, women are going home and focusing solely on babies! Because, as we all know, after we become mothers we stop being productive human beings and can only focus on the kids.

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Workplace policies that were meant to help working parents leave early to meet the demands of parenthood are backfiring for the women who choose to take advantage of them. In short, as summarized in the Washington Post, "researchers found when a female employee clocks out before the work-culturally acceptable time, her colleagues are more likely to think she's probably off to pick up her kids. If a male employee checks out early, they may think he's off to meet clients."

This could be because often it is women taking advantage of these policies or possibly because men are less vocal about the fact that they are leaving for something related to childrearing.

The study also found that mothers judge themselves more harshly for not being plugged in 24/7. It seems we imagine that everyone is else is working late into the night, while we spend time with our children. As someone who a few years ago was a single, working girl, I can tell you that sometimes I was working late but sometimes I was just at happy hour after work. My days are longer now that I am working mom, and I focus on being productive with my time in a way that I didn't do so before. But like many moms, I am often plagued with guilt over missing self-imposed deadlines, and I want to write one more email or read one more thing, until I am confronted with the ubiquitous question that haunts all mothers: Am I spending enough time with my child?

Don't worry, I am writing this as my son is in deep slumber.

But I know I am not the only one feeling short on time. The New York Times recently reported that "the time Americans spend at work has sharply increased over the last four decades. We work an average of 1,836 hours a year, up 9 percent from 1,687 in 1979." In fact, Americans work more hours than many other industrialized countries and, for many, the traditional workday has become 9 to 7 instead of 9 to 5.

What we need is work-life balance for everyone—not just for parents. This would eliminate the sense that we are competing against childless people or men who don't participate in childrearing (although I suspect that number is becoming smaller and smaller). These divisions among parents and non-parents only reinforce stereotypes about women with children. I know that the "Lean In" movement told us all to work harder, and some days I lean so far in I think I might fall over and hit my head. Maybe what we really need is a "Lean Out" movement, where everyone, regardless of whether or not they have children, isn't expected to be plugged in 24/7.

I am reminded of an article written by Rosa Brooks, where she urged us all to recline a bit, because "if we truly want gender equality, we need to challenge the assumption that more is always better, and the assumption that men don't suffer as much as women when they're exhausted and have no time for family or fun."

While this study focused on women with degrees and in high paying jobs, we know that the expectation to work around the clock isn't working for anyone. Shortly after the birth of my son, I was laid off while on maternity leave. Leaning out was simply not an option for me, as my family needed both incomes to thrive. I admit I wasn't exactly walking into job interviews demanding to know what their policies were for working parents. I was fortunate enough to secure work in a place where working parents (male and female) are allowed to adjust their schedules and where everyone agrees to not email past a certain time.

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But I know that this is not the norm for many sectors and that, while those of us in privileged positions can argue about leaning in or leaning out, for many women and men work is simply a matter of survival. It is because of them we must create scenarios where men in powerful roles admit that they want to spend time with their kids, and people without kids admit that they don't want to be plugged in 24/7 and want to have a life outside of work.

Only then will the workplace become more manageable for everyone.

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Image via Twenty20/kcmerrill

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