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Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Family-Friendly Far From Fair?

Ally at the Who Moved My Truth Blog asks the following question: "...Where are the perks when you decide not to have children? Why do we pay the same price at the gym when I don't use their childcare and you do? Is it fair?"

Ally doesn't give her own opinion (but she does reference a post that trends against "family friendly" policies by GeekGirl2 on the Musings & Ephemera blog), but I'd like to take a crack at an answer. As a mom of three who was single until 36 and childless until 40, I think it is fair to say I've been on both sides of the question. And having looked at it from both sides, I don't think the matter is a cut and dried as it might seem. Marketplace compensations exist.

Consider gym pricing, as Ally does. Most gym memberships are priced under the assumption that members will use the facilities far less often than they are entitled to. Until a gym is filled to capacity, the more memberships a club sells, the less it needs to charge each member to stay profitable. If a club has unsold memberships available, and offering childcare brings in more revenue than providing the service costs, offering childcare can result in lower membership prices for all members, parents or not. It is likely that any given club is offering childcare not out of charity but because it is good business.

GeekGirl2 focuses her family-friendly musings on the workplace, saying in part: "Not meaning to sound grumpy here, but what is an employer going to give me in return for coming to work every day, not leaving early, working unpaid overtime, covering so-called 'family' un-friendly shifts, etc?"

This question, I submit, is better addressed to GeekGirl2's employer than to the blogging community. GeekGirl2 (presumably; I do not know her) accepted employment under terms she considered advantageous to herself. At the point at which her employer asks her to stay late or assume other duties to such a degree that the employment is no longer advantageous relative to GeekGirl2's employment alternatives, GeekGirl2 (presumably) will ask or a raise, compensatory benefits, or quit. This will be the case whether her co-workers have children or cats.

The same is true for GeekGirl2's co-workers who are parents. Some may have traded income or upward mobility for the chance to work fewer hours, a fact which may be invisible to GeekGirl2. When GeekGirl2 gets promoted ahead of these workers, will she recall that her ability to work longer hours gave her an edge -- that the greater opportunity for promotion was itself a benefit of the longer hours worked?

No two employees are alike. In most positions, hours worked is but one factor that measures an employee's worth (if a century worth of labor union propaganda has led you to think otherwise, review your assumptions). A very knowledgeable, high-motivated employee working 38 hours per week may be more valuable to a company than a 42-hour-week average employee, even if the salaries paid are identical. Or not. What is most predictable is that the employer knows which employees are the most valuable, and is making decisions accordingly.

The more successful a business is, the more likely it is that the employer knows which employees are the most valuable and is compensating and promoting accordingly.

A childless worker faced with co-workers who want less hours so they can watch junior's t-ball games potentially is faced not with an unfair situation, but with a a greater opportunity for advancement than would be the case if all her co-workers were childless.

But, childless workers, if the situation still seems unfair in the short run when you really, really want to go home and can't while you co-worker gets to attend her 25th piano recital, consider the long run: The children your co-workers are spending a small fortune in cash, sacrifices and sweat equity to raise will someday pay your generation's Social Security benefits. Your co-workers won't get a cent more in benefits than you will despite having paid to raise the kids who will make the benefits possible. That's not fair either.

Posted by Amy Ridenour at 1:25 AM

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