Is it a truth or a truism that American women aren't reaching the top of the career ladder because of the dearth of family-friendly policies? How often do you hear that what we need are more part-time options, subsidized childcare, and job security for working mothers? If only those measures were in place, women would be succeeding on all levels, goes the logic.
Well, you can add this to the "Be-careful-what-you wish-for" file. That's essentially the sentiment of Claire Lundberg, an American now living in Paris. Lundberg writes in Slate about how enthralled she was at first by France's family-friendly job policies—"a four-month-long maternity leave, inexpensive health care for all, five weeks of vacation a year, and many quality and affordable full-time day care options."
After having a baby, Lundberg embarks on her own job search—and that's where theory meets reality. When she interviews with a female-owned business in Paris, she's appalled that she's asked about her plans for more children. (She dodges the issue and still hasn't heard back from the prospective employer.) The upshot is that she starts to rethink all those wonderful safety nets for women:
Some of the government protections and incentives offered to mothers in France may in fact make their advancement in the workplace more difficult. Paid maternity leave increases with the number of children, from 16 weeks for one or two children to 26 weeks for three or more. (In contrast, paternity leave stays fixed at 11 days.) This much guaranteed leave can make employers nervous to hire and promote women.
Digging deeper, Lundberg gets even more discouraged. She discovers that France fares poorly in workplace gender equality, ranking a "shocking 57th, behind most other European countries, the United States (too low at No. 22), Jamaica, and Russia," according to the 2012 Global Gender Gap Index.
While family-friendly policies may make many women—in particular those in lower—and mid-wage jobs—happier and perhaps even more productive and their children healthier, there is a growing body of evidence that they also inadvertently create a "mommy track." In fact, more generous leave policies partly explain the glass ceilings, as well as stubbornly large wage gaps in more progressive countries.
There it is—the progeny of family-friendly policies: the mommy track. Depending on the conversation, it's either something women dread or secretly wish for.
Personally, I am all in favor of having options for everyone—men and women. Who can argue with part-time or flextime work arrangements? Or paid maternity leaves or extended unpaid leaves? If they make you happier or your life more manageable—and you can afford it—why not avail yourself to those offerings?
That said, there's a hidden price to be paid for some of those goodies. As I've written before, many firms and companies frequently listed as the "most family friendly" or "best for women" also have poor records for promoting women (click here and here). On the flip side, my research indicates that blue chip, one-tier firms—where the odds of becoming partner are daunting for everyone—have some of the best female equity partner rates in the legal profession. (Remember, women at single-tier firms make up 17.6 percent of equity partners; at two-tier firms, women account for only 14.7 percent of equity partners.)
Why are women doing better in high-powered all-equity firms rather than firms that offer a variety of career options (like nonequity partner)? My theory is that if they don't have the option to opt out, they have no choice but to go for it.
Gee, I hope the conclusion isn't that women will succeed only if they are forced to.
Related post: Les Femmes Fatiguees
Hat tip: The New York Times