Written By: Jenny Hyde
Happiness in the workplace matters. Unfortunately for many women in America, common workplace traditions and policies negatively impact their ability to achieve or maintain a significant level of happiness. Despite some advances in recent years, female-friendly work environments are too often experienced as a luxury reserved for employees in high paying fields. As a result, understanding the biases that affect working women of all social and economic backgrounds has become an important justice issue that warrants our attention.
A recent Slate article examined what factors have the greatest impact on women’s happiness in the workplace. Their research was drawn from Fairygodboss, a website dedicated to improving women’s experiences at work. Women who visit the website are encouraged to provide data that includes wage information and options for maternity leave at their respective jobs. Users are also encouraged to leave testimonies that reflect their experiences of gender in the workplace. While these testimonies range in subject, one particular theme struck a chord for almost every female user on the site: the difficulty of raising a family while working.
Pregnancy and child care have the power to shape the trajectory of a woman’s career. Taking time off to raise a child (for both men and women) often necessitates sacrificing time on the job, and as a result, maternity and paternity leave are not advantageous to an employer's bottom line. Employees who do take leave often have to put opportunities for career advancement on hold. With many other factors contributing to a lack happiness at work, many women come to view the trade off between spending time raising children, and returning to a job, as an either or choice. As a result, we see trends such as an increasing pay gap between sexes that starts once women typically start having children. These narratives should cause us to look for alternative solutions that look to re empower working women once they begin to have families.
We need to work towards pro-family policies both in our places of work and on a policy level because either consciously or unconsciously, women are being held back.
“Policies that help keep women in the workforce, like affordable child care, paid sick days and parental leave, could help,” a recent New York Times article said. Flexibility is a necessity when raising children, the article argued. To illustrate this point, if a child is sick or needs to be transported to school or elsewhere during the day, it almost becomes a necessity that a mother or father has a job that can accommodate these tasks. Encouraging employers and companies to allow for these needs is ever important. Likewise, for those of us who either have or will one day have the opportunity to shape workplace policies, these considerations should be taken to heart. Having a child should not equate to the loss of a calling or the ability to actively contribute to the workforce. As Fairygodbossdemonstrates, better parental leave policies work, and they have been proven to significantly increase happiness among working women.
It is important to keep in mind that a lack of pro-family policies disproportionately impacts low-income women. Many low wage and temporary jobs do not offer the benefits of paid leave, and as a result, rather than take time off, women in these positions are often forced to quit their jobs once they have a child and then reapply at later point in time, figuratively starting over. According to sociologist Philip Cohen, “that’s not the same as making a career choice.” At this policy level, it’s appropriate for us to advocate for a better standard among our leaders and government officials. Washington DC serves as one example, where the City Council “proposed a law that would cover all workers and enable them to take 16 weeks of paid leave to care for a child or sick family member, regardless of where they work.” We should be champions for these kinds of proposals, which stand to lift up women and their families.
In addition to how we treat time off and allow for flexibility at work, the stigmatization surrounding pregnancy need to be addressed. Harassment in male dominated workplaces, and preexisting biases that attribute having children to a lack of drive are taking their toll on women in America. In an eye-opening piece for the New York Times, Maureen Sherry describes the struggle she and many other co-workers faced in their careers on Wall Street. When a job candidate in an interview asked what struggles she might face at her prospective place of work, Sherry reminisces:
“Of course she would have to avoid stereotypical female behavior, and so she could never cry. She would work long hours and hide her pregnancies and her preschooler’s art. One of my co-workers even hid being married. When confronted, she practically swore never to reproduce, and she never did.”
The societal norms behind these experiences are extremely harmful to women and their families, and they should not be acceptable in any work environment. Whenever we witness these behaviors, it’s important for men and women to fight for a higher standard. We need to be advocates for the pro-family workplace, but we also need more women advocating from within. There are fewer women than men in positions of leadership, in part because of the factors this article outlines. However, this current imbalance hosts great potential. As we lift up women as they make choices in child care, we also need to lift up female leaders in our offices. The American workforce needs more women who can understand and implement the important policies that hold families together both physically and financially. One powerful voice has the opportunity to lift up many voices which have been silenced by stigmatization or fear.
The Christian community has an important role to play in advocating for pro-family workplaces. We have the history and experience of cultivating communities that support one another in our places of worship. These micro-models hold the potential to serve as a great ethical framework for many business and offices. A strong Church seeks to unveil the gifts and talents of its members in such a way that the community at large is able to experience a high standard of health and vibrancy.
In sum, we need to work towards pro-family policies both in our places of work and on a policy level because either consciously or unconsciously, women are being held back. Satisfaction in the workplace is a justice issue when it impairs the opportunity for people to succeed and reach their full potential. Women should not have to choose between providing economically for their children, and being present during crucial points in their physical and emotional development. Our society will benefit when we can fully access the talent present in our labor force – and this demands that we continue to break down gender barriers.
-Jenny Hyde is a recent alumna of Gordon College, where she received her degree in International Affairs. She is currently living and working in Washington, D.C.