Let’s Take Luck Out of the ‘Boss Lottery’

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World's Best Boss

Credit: Kumar Appaiah on Flickr, under Creative Commons

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Working mothers often talk about the importance of a supportive partner when discussing their ability to meet their family and work responsibilities. Today, National Boss’s Day, I’d like to call attention to another critical person in a working mother’s life: her employer.

In a country that lacks key supports for parents, bosses wield incredible power in the lives of working mothers. The benefits they provide in areas such as paid leave and opportunities for flexible scheduling and telecommuting can make or break a working mother’s career–and can determine whether her family stays financially afloat.

I know from experience. About a year after the birth of my second son, I was exhausted from many months of interrupted sleep and overwhelmed by the expense of child care, and I wanted to spend more time with my children in their early years.

I confided in my boss, and she listened with open and supportive ears. “We’ll make it work,” she said. And we did. I was able to reduce my working hours, do some work from home and arrange my schedule so that I would be able to make doctor appointments, conferences and the occasional holiday concert.

Now, four years later, I am still happily and gainfully employed–and deeply grateful to my boss for her critical help during those challenging years. I consider myself incredibly lucky.

It wasn’t the first time I lucked out in the workplace; after the birth of my first son, my then boss–Rita Henley Jensen, editor in chief of Women’s eNews–gave me a gift certificate to a lactation consultant. The gift enabled me to continue breastfeeding at a time when I was on the brink of giving up, and was a sign of the support to come in terms of paid leave, schedule flexibility, continued opportunities to telecommute and a family-friendly work environment.

Unfortunately, though, luck–or the lack of it–often determines whether working mothers have access to these kinds of supports. It’s what Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C., calls the “boss lottery.”

Hillary Clinton Supportive

Tanden, a mother of two, served as an adviser to Hillary Clinton when she was in the White House and in the Senate before being asked to advise Clinton during her 2008 presidential run. Tanden’s children were young at the time, and she agonized over the decision. But she ultimately said yes, and cites her professional success in part to her supportive boss.

Clinton allowed Tanden to arrange her schedule so she could be home for dinner and work from home at night. On one occasion, she even rescheduled her debate-prep appointment so Tanden could attend her daughter’s graduation from preschool. She had won the “boss lottery,” which paved the way for her to become a D.C. “powerhouse” as one of few female think tank heads.

Not everyone gets a winning ticket, though. Only 12 percent of U.S. workers have access to paid family leave through their employers, and nearly 40 percent of private-sector workers–and 80 percent of low-wage workers–don’t have a single paid sick day, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families.

“You shouldn’t have to win the boss lottery, or the husband lottery, to be able to thrive professionally while raising your children,” Tanden wrote in a recent article. “But that’s still the reality for too many.”

President Barack Obama and some members of Congress have called to protect working parents from the whims of their employers. “Family leave, child care, workplace flexibility, a decent wage–these are not frills, they are basic needs,” Obama said at a White House Summit on Working Families this summer. “They shouldn’t be bonuses. They should be part of our bottom line as a society. That’s what we’re striving for.”

And advocates are working very hard–city by city and state by state–to enact paid sick leave laws, and they have made considerable progress. Paid sick days laws are in place in California and Connecticut and in a number of cities across the country, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families. In November, paid sick days measures will be on ballots in Massachusetts, Oakland, Calif., and two towns in New Jersey.

Flexibility Increasing

Workplace flexibility is advancing, too, according to Sara Sutton Fell, founder and CEO of FlexJobs, an online service for professionals, and founder of 1 Million for Workplace Flexibility, a coalition of groups promoting workplace flexibility. ”First, more and more companies are offering jobs with flexible work options, and with ever-increasing variety, ranging from entry level to executive,” she said. “Second, work flexibility is making headway in legislation worldwide. Third … cloud-based technologies and the mobility of communications have dramatically reduced the restrictions on where and when people have to work, and these developments are continuing to advance.”

Still, Congress has not enacted significant work-family legislation since the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, which grants eligible employees up to 12 weeks of job-protected, but unpaid, leave.

Without federal legislation, employers in many states get to decide whether workers can take paid time off to care for a new or sick child or rearrange their schedules to attend doctor appointments, parent-teacher conferences, or even, say, a preschool graduation. Ultimately, employers can help determine whether women stay and rise in the workforce and whether we are able to create a better, fairer and more just world for all.

“In the absence of a binding national policy, a variety of routine situations, like a sick child, a call from the principal’s office, the birth of your child, a parent’s funeral … can get you in trouble, not paid, or even fired, depending on the particular employer or manager or boss,” Valerie Young, advocacy coordinator at Mom-mentum, a nonprofit organization in New York, said in an email interview. “There’s no rhyme or reason” to it, and that, she says, “is no way to run a railroad.”

We could all use more winning tickets in the boss lottery, but more than that, we need national legislation that takes the luck factor out of a mother’s chance of staying, and thriving, in the workplace.

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