Working Moms Concerned About Looming Budget Cuts

As companies struggle to stay afloat in the recession, many institutions are slashing their budgets. According to a recent Washington Post article, work-life balance programs may be the first to go. And some wonder about the impact on working moms. Author Sylvia Ann Hewlett, of the Center for Work-Life Policy, explains.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Just ahead, we continue our series on Women's History Month with a musical tribute to jazz artist Abbey Lincoln.

But first, it's time for our Wisdom Watch, where we ask respected leaders to share their insights. Today, a woman who's made a career of making the case for work-life balance, why it's good for workers and why it's good for companies: author and economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett. She's the founding president and chairperson of the Center for Work-Life Policy, and she directs the Gender and Policy Program at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs.

But how is that push for more balanced work environments faring in these troubled economic times? We'll ask her. She's here with us now. Welcome, Ms. Hewlett. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. SYLVIA ANN HEWLETT (President, Chair, Center for Work-Life Policy): It's great to be on the program.

MARTIN: How did this concept of work-life balance become something to talk about in the modern workplace? Of course, religiously, some traditions have the concept of the Sabbath. In the agricultural economy, you're following the seasons. And, of course, in the industrial age, this whole question of the conditions of workers became an important part of the culture. But what about this concept as we think about it right now? When did that start?

Ms. HEWLETT: Increasingly, I'll basically say the younger generation just expects to find fulfillment in both love and work, to have these multi-dimensional, rich lives. But what is layered on top right this second is a professional workplace where jobs have become much more extreme.

In my research, I can show that the average workweek for a professional went up by about 10 hours a week in the decade '95 to 2005.

And, of course, in the very recent past, these extreme jobs with their, you know, multiple time zones and the enhanced performance pressures, etcetera, etcetera, have been made even more difficult by the crunch of the economic recession.

So I do feel that it's not a coincidence that there's a lot of stress, pressure and almost a newly urgent conversation going on.

MARTIN: I think a lot of people associate the whole conversation about work-life balance with women and with the entry of women into the pay labor force, but not so much the - because women have always been in the labor force, either through, you know, domestic service, you know, slavery, if you want - you know, whatever, but through women into more prestigious areas and to other sectors of the economy to which they had previously been excluded. Do you think that that's also true?

Ms. HEWLETT: Absolutely. And I do think that, you know, parenting has become more extreme, too. The standards around child-raising these days are very high. So I do think that there's, you know, obviously multiple pressures in modern lives, and in our research, we recently turned our attention to Gen Y. And I think that, you know, 28-year-old male is as eager to figure out this balancing act as the more classic, you know, 35-year-old women with a second child.

MARTIN: What I'm hearing you say, just in the way you framed this conversation so far, is that we think about family-friendly or work-life policies as something new. But what I'm hearing you say, they are really a corrective to other trends, which is that, in fact, the workplace has become so extreme in some fields that really what people are looking for is to attenuate that. Does that make sense?

Ms. HEWLETT: Well, giving you an example - absolutely. For instance, you know, KPMG just this last month offered its employees in England some thing called flexible futures, which is the option of either going on a four-day week or taking a short, mini-sabbatical. They see this as a kind of total win-win in the current situation because this has the prospect of reducing the wage bills of the company by 20 percent, but basically giving back to employees - and there's a lot of men interested in this, as well as women. In fact, 85 percent of employees in England say that they're interested in this deal because it restores some kind of equilibrium in lives.

MARTIN: Now there's been a lot of talk about these so called family-friendly policies or work-life balance policies. But before the recession, how prevalent, really, were these policies?

Ms. HEWLETT: Well, you know, about 30 percent of companies did offer flexibility, and they were at the top of the wish list in terms of what women craved to make their lives possible. The big if and but around flexible policy is, of course, where there's a green light, whether you feel you really can take what's on the books. And obviously, in some corporate cultures, these policies were fairly stigmatized, although they existed and no one dared take them because they saw it as the kiss of professional death.

And I think the difference between a, you know, a good company and a not-so-good company was how legitimate some of these policies were. And I think one of the sad things in this recession is that increasingly, and I have a lot of numbers on this, professional employees feel that they can't take this stuff, that they really have to have, you know, take their jacket on the back of their chair at 9 o'clock to kind of prove to the boss that they're indispensable because, you know obviously people are running scared in terms of their security of their own jobs.

MARTIN: That was going to be my next question. Do you feel that many of these programs are now under attack, even though they were stigmatized to begin with? Or perhaps because they were stigmatized to begin with, that people who took them were seen as special or privileged or advantaged or somehow a drag on the company? And now that people who are engaged in these kinds of programs, is there any data to show that they are more vulnerable, or merely that they feel more vulnerable?

Ms. HEWLETT: Well, you know, according to my data, which, you know, took a read on attitudes last June and again in December and January of this year, we find that employees are saying that face-time pressures, you know, that pressure to be actually in your office long hours every day have gone up enormously over the last year. So that is true. Now, clearly, you know, some employees are trying to counterbalance that. And the idea at some of the companies that are pushing these policies right now is it is not as nice to have. You know, it's not an accommodation to women's lives, women who somehow can't hack it. It's much more a retention tool, because, quite frankly, if you look at the figures, they're quite frightening.

We find in the data that women are twice as likely to voluntarily quit very highly pressured, extreme jobs right now than men, and there's a tremendous exodus of top female talent. And where are they going? You'd think, you know, in this economy, there's no place to go. Many very able women are actually crossing over from troubled sectors to the not-for-profit sector, to safer zones, and many of them are making very different kinds of choices. Rather few of them are going home. Either they can't afford to do that or they don't want to do that. But I think that employers in troubled sectors have to understand that unless they create kinder and gentler work places these days, they are going to lose some of their best female talent.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with author and economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett about the impact of the recession on the work-life balance issue for both men and women, but particularly for women. I think a number of work places have experienced layoffs, including this one, in the spirit of full disclosure. I think that's been in the news. And many of these places are having to still accommodate the same workload with fewer people.

Ms. HEWLETT: Right.

MARTIN: I mean, in a situation like that, is it really reasonable to expect that these kinds of more accommodating schedules can be maintained? I mean, from a management standpoint, might not people say, look, the workload's still there. I have fewer people to do it. It's just got to get done, and whoever's going to get it done is who's going to be here.

Ms. HEWLETT: You know, I totally empathize with the very difficult conditions out there. But again, what men and women are saying is that workloads just went through the roof because they're dealing with depleted teams, you know, more people are - less people are doing more work, and also these tremendously brutal face-time pressures, because they have to prove their indispensability all the time. And what we again see in the data is that the level of stress is very dysfunctional.

You know, 56 percent of everyone finds it really hard to focus because they're so demoralized. They have one foot out the door, you know, looking for perhaps the next job. So paying attention to nurturing the workers you choose to keep is incredibly important because they are, you know, the high octane brain power that's going to lead to renewal and growth, and you need to, you know, make sure that the loyalty-trust engagement of those folks is as high as possible.

And this new book that I'm just finishing right now is how to manage through a recession so that you do get the most out of the folks that are staying with you over the long haul. So I think a company that says, you know, hey guys, we do have to economize on our wage bills. We need to save 20 percent of moneys in that respect. But let's spread it around. Let's give everyone the option of, say, a four-day week or a mini-sabbatical, because in that way we don't need to fire anyone and we can make sure that you are able to maintain your peak performance levels because, actually, you're not stressed out in ways that people are becoming in other sectors. And I think it can, clearly, over the short run, be a kind of win-win scenario.

MARTIN: Part of what also I'm hearing you say is that some of these pressures are work culture pressures. They're not really related to actual performance, that part of what the expectations are don't really have to do with doing the job. It has to do with pretending you're doing the job or showing that you're doing the job.

Ms. HEWLETT: Right.

MARTIN: That's quite curious. And I wonder, then, does that mean some of the expectations that are being placed on workers aren't really about the work?

Ms. HEWLETT: Yes. I mean, in a way, you can understand on the employers' perspective, you know, they're so busy worrying about the next layoff, perhaps, worrying about, you know, clamoring clients or vaporized values. You know, there's all kinds of bad stuff happening in this environment. Often what they forget to do is to kind of nurture the talent that is in place, that is choosing to stick around, and they need so desperately for the next, you know, phase of hopefully renewal and growth. We found the figuring out how to create recognition, so that if you are doing a stunning job and you certainly aren't going to get a pay raise this year, you know that the company appreciates you and your boss, you know, understands what you're doing in terms of, you know, giving your best.

Using time as currency, you know, a little bit of flex in the margin makes a huge difference in a world where you're not going to get a bonus. And making sure that teams have all kinds of both coaching and facilitating to make sure that they are gelling well in an environment where most teams are doing much more with less, so that we end up with about eight strategies that employers -whether it's, you know, not-for-profits or, you know, GE - really can use to make people feel a lot better about their working lives in an era, obviously, where they're under brutal pressure.

MARTIN: What's the new book called?

Ms. HEWLETT: It's called "Talk Talent: Keeping Performance Up When Business is Down." And it is very much these eight strategies that I was referring to.

MARTIN: Well, we'll look forward to it. Thank you for mentioning it.

Ms. HEWLETT: Thank you.

MARTIN: Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an author and economist, is the founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policies. She directs the Gender and Policy Program at Columbia. Her latest book is called "Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success." And as you heard her say, her next book will speak about managing these issues in a recessionary environment. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. HEWLETT: It was a great conversation. Thank you.

MARTIN: Now we'd like to hear from you. Are you struggling to find a balance between work and family life during this recession, and are you worried that the next lay off in your office may be you? Next week, we're going to talk to our Culture Coach about what to do if you're worried about losing your job, and we'd like to know your questions about how to prepare. Are you already searching for a new job? Do you have questions about how to quietly pursue other options? You know, just in case. To submit your questions to our Culture Coach, you can call our comment line at 202-842-3522. Again that's 202-842-3522. Please remember to tell us your name, or you can always log on to our Web site. Just go to npr.org. Click on TELL ME MORE and blog it out.

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