What I’m Reading: Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
What I’m Watching: Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You
When I’m Not Reading: Let’s be honest: playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
Recently, Khara Jabola-Carolus’ out-of-office statement made waves on social media — or it did among my cohort of working women. With two small children at home and almost no uninterrupted work time, Jabola-Carolus cannot get work done. Of course she can’t! There’s no end in sight for many parents in this situation, with the incredible necessity of schools needing to be virtual this fall, and many districts deciding to do so; our children will be home with us as we try to work for many more months. The laundry, the cleaning, the cooking, time for learning and engaging, the need for care… all of this will continue. (My fridge sure stayed stocked longer, my dishes were noticeably fewer, and the toilet stayed cleaner when we were all out of the house!) This is the “BBC Dad” writ large, except this time, our work time isn’t going to be saved by a partner coming in to scoop our distractions (e.g., our children) away.
Recently, I attended a three-day online symposium sponsored by the Denver Public Library and funded through the IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Services) focused on advancing racial equity and inclusion in the workplace. In one session, anti-oppression speaker, trainer, activist, and consultant Regan Bird shared a response to an audience member question that made a giant lightbulb go off for me. The question was:
“Can the panelists respond to something I’m hearing from mgmt about competing equities — for instance, making allowances for parents with kids at home vs not giving special treatment to heteronormative-style families, and showing equal respect for those with other non-child responsibilities and not putting more work on them.”
And Regan’s response:
“We can support people with children and who are caregivers broadly, without doing so through a heteronormative lens. Family caregivers, especially those with children whom have to deal with the upending of education systems, have new and emerging needs that organizations should incorporate into new equity solutions and processes.” (emphasis mine)
Why the lightbulb?
- We are further contributing to inequity if we continue to pit employees with children versus those without children.
- We must recognize that nearly all of our employees have some kind of caring responsibility, yes, often for children, but also for sick family members, older family members, extended family members, single friends… to think otherwise is to buy into the heteronormative idea that families only look one way (mom, dad, two kids, the dog, the picket fence).
- Virtually the only support for families with children in our society is school. With a lack of access to quality parental leave, free childcare, universal pre-school, all-day kindergarten, community-based activities, and free informal learning opportunities in the US, school must become all of this; it is the only way families can have a chunk of uninterrupted work time. That system has been ripped away from families with no notice, and there is nothing to fall back on. Is it any wonder families need more support from their workplaces?
- Our vision of “working” and being “professional” in the US is basically Don Draper in Mad Men: 9-to-5, Monday to Friday; in-person meetings; networking (or working) over dinner and/or night meetings; meeting on the golf course. Most people didn’t even work that way in 1960, and those who did had supports that were not necessarily widely available then and are certainly not widely available now: one salary could support a family; when the wife was expected to and, because she was generally unable to work outside of the home, available to care for the home and family; when many families lived in multi-generational family settings or near family who could help… I could go on. You can get up and be on the 7am train because someone else is getting the children up, fed, and to school. You can stay late for that meeting because someone else is preparing dinner, feeding the kids, and putting them to bed. You can play a round of golf on the weekend because someone else is taking care of the house. This is not, and has not been, sustainable for decades.
Much has been written about how COVID-19 is bad for working women. Much, too, about the need for, and the movement to, redefine our perceptions of work and the standards by which we judge employee investment and success. We have a lot to do, as Regan shares, in order to create new solutions to respond to this massive shift in what is the only real support structure most families have in our society. This is long-term, systemic work that needs to be grounded in equity: how can we ensure the needs of our employees are being met, so they might be able to be fully present and contribute?
(As a side note, the DPL symposium was an incredible online learning experience, and, as the interest was so large, the sessions were also streamed on YouTube; all the session recordings have been compiled into a playlist. This was not a symposium focused on libraries and library work, and the sessions will have value for everyone. If you’re going to watch only one session, make it “Session 1A, Promoting and Sustaining An Inclusive Work Environment and support staff of color” featuring Samuel González and Diana Marie Lee of Sweet Livity and Dr. Frank Tuitt, formerly of the University of Denver and now Chief Diversity Officer of the University of Connecticut. It is 75 minutes that will change your life.)
We can start, now, working as individuals to shape this change.
Some ideas for those of us who are employers or managers to allow for for flexibility for all of your employees:
- Recognize that your employees have challenges at home that you may not be aware of.
- Prioritize work from home whenever possible. Be thoughtful and honest of when their physical presence is essential and when they must be available. It is probably not 40 hours a week — it probably looks something more like 9am to noon on Tuesdays for their weekly shift on the permit desk and an hour on Thursday for the team meeting. Concentrate on output and impact, not hours worked.
- Allow your employees to develop their own work schedules. These schedules may look like 7am to 10am and then 1 to 3pm and then 6:30 to 9:30pm, instead of 9 to 5, and it probably includes time at night and/or on the weekends in order to balance their availability with other supports at home. The schedule may look like four ten hour days. Your city runs 24/7, and you have colleagues in parks, libraries, public works, and public safety who have worked “unusual” schedules for a long time. (Hint: these schedules were never unusual. Your bankers hours, though, were.)
- Consider the options you have for supporting employees at this time — for example, how many hours a week must someone work to keep benefits? Let your employees temporarily drop down in hours, even as it means a reduction in pay, if that is their wish.
- Be honest about deadlines and expectations.
- And, most importantly, be realistic about what you can do with the resources you have available. Progress, not perfection.
And what can you do as a colleague?
- Be kind, compassionate, and gentle with one another. Most of us do not have any idea of what really happens in our colleagues’ lives outside of work. Do you know whether your colleagues have children? Do you know their children’s names? Who is caring for a family member?
- Don’t make assumptions. Your colleague with children is not using them as an excuse to push work off on you or to not get things done; they are doing their best with the resources they have at hand.
- Ask what you can do to help your colleagues. Could you pick up slack at the beginning of a project in exchange for them taking the lead at the end? Focus less on me and more on we, and work together to have everyone contribute to the success of a project or service.
- Respect your colleagues’ do-not-disturb or office hours calendar blocks. It is very, very likely they have crafted these blocks of time very purposefully to reflect the time they do have to work uninterrupted.
And as a parent? Be realistic about what you can accomplish. Work with your supervisor and your colleagues to develop a plan that can work for everyone. This may mean you need to drop down the number of hours you work, or a timeline for a project is significantly extended, or you will respond to email within the week instead of the day. It may mean you need to negotiate taking a leave.
Our society celebrates parenthood, but also expects every parent to put away this significant portion of their lives while at work. We celebrate families while excluding those whose family isn’t the idolized or stereotypical family our patriarchal society envisions — childless and child-free families, single parents, multi-generational families, families where both parents work, and so on are often invisible. If meeting existing work expectations assumes someone else is taking care of the kids, then that is the patriarchy at play. Let’s work together to change it.