Flying nannies no fix for workplace culture

A private equity firm has announced that it will pay for both your baby and a nanny to fly with you when you travel for business until the baby's first birthday.

IBM plans to ship home breast milk pumped on a work trip. Facebook and Apple will reimburse the costs for employees who want to freeze their eggs.

It seems businesses are falling over themselves these days to cater to women who want to be or are mothers.

To bring the workplace into the 21st century, we need a new archetype of the ideal worker that is not anchored in gender, and reflects the multiple roles employees play in all spheres of their lives. But that goes against many of our unconscious assu
To bring the workplace into the 21st century, we need a new archetype of the ideal worker that is not anchored in gender, and reflects the multiple roles employees play in all spheres of their lives. But that goes against many of our unconscious assumptions about gender norms at home. PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO

I am the last person to object to policies intended to support working mothers, which are a far cry from what I experienced when I had my three children more than 20 years ago. I do not have fond memories of pumping my breast milk in the office restroom when my first was born (I gave up after a week), or fighting to get paid anything while on parental leave.

But this new raft of "perks" shows how trapped we still are in a work culture that prizes total availability at the office at all times, and how blind we are to the impact that norms at work have on roles at home. Change to both will come only when we acknowledge the deep connection between the two spheres.

We need new ways to live and work in today's changing world, and that starts at the top. Leaders have to model a different set of behaviours - and recognise others who are successfully working in a way that allows them to be meaningfully engaged at home.

The United States is a nation of working caregivers, except at the top of the corporate world. That's why business leaders are more likely to see caregiving as something that is fundamentally incompatible with the way they work.

While most married workers are dual-income couples, a majority of business leaders, roughly 80 per cent of whom are men, are not providing both cash and care.

Mr Boris Groysberg and Mr Robin Abrahams, from Harvard Business School, completed a survey last year of nearly 4,000 executives in a wide range of industries. The survey found that 60 per cent of the men have spouses who don't work full-time outside the home, compared with only 10 per cent of the women.

This model of family life continues to be the prerequisite for success in corporate America, it seems. It provides the right incentive (complete reliance on one income), and the right support (ability to focus entirely on work). It perpetuates the prototype of the ideal worker as someone who can - and does - regularly put work above everything else, including caring for oneself and one's family.

Both men and women think that in order to be a leader, you have to sacrifice your personal life for work. In a survey of more than 1,000 women and men at all career stages, consulting firm Bain & Co found that there is a deeply ingrained "ideal worker" model.

Sixty per cent of respondents agreed that among the most important characteristics for promotion were "maintaining a high profile in the organisation, and an unwavering commitment to long hours and constant work".

Mr Groysberg and Mr Abrahams found that "even the men who pride themselves on having achieved some degree of balance between work and the other realms of their lives measure themselves against a traditional male ideal".

They quoted one interviewee as saying: "The 10 minutes I give my kids at night is one million times greater than spending that 10 minutes at work." Men who are counting their caregiving in terms of the last 10 minutes of the day are not playing a caregiving role on a day-to-day basis.

To bring the workplace into the 21st century, then, we need a new archetype of the ideal worker that is not anchored in gender, and reflects the multiple roles that employees play in all spheres of their lives.

If you think that sounds hard, it is because it goes against many of our unconscious assumptions about gender norms at home.

Despite tremendous progress, a majority of Americans still cling to traditional gender norms.

For example, according to the think-tank Pew Research Centre, 67 per cent of Americans believe it's "very important" that a man be ready to support a family before getting married, while only 33 per cent believe the same about women. Pew also found that 51 per cent of Americans believe children are better off if the mother stays home, but only 8 per cent say children are better off if the father stays home.

Even dual-career couples default to gender roles, unless they are same-sex couples, as we learnt at the Families and Work Institute in our 2015 Modern Families study.

It is hard to tell to what extent the assumptions at work are driving choices at home, or if it is the other way around. In the end, the important thing to realise is that these dynamics are self-reinforcing.

As a paper last year found, in analysing studies of close to 1,000 male managers, "men in traditional marriages are more likely to have negative attitudes towards women in the workplace" than men in dual-income marriages. They also tend to evaluate work-life policies on the basis of their own "personal beliefs and marriage structures".

When coupled with the research done by Professor Adam Galinsky at the Columbia Business School showing that power makes people less able to understand another person's perspective, it is not hard to see how senior men with wives at home end up perpetuating the ideal male work model.

It doesn't have to be this way. 

But for workplace culture to change, perks won't do.

We need new ways to live and work in today's changing world, and that starts at the top. Leaders have to model a different set of behaviours - and recognise others who are successfully working in a way that allows them to be meaningfully engaged at home.

Equally important, leaders have a responsibility to think differently about leadership potential. All too often, women and men who deviate from the ideal worker model - especially for caregiving reasons - are forever written off as leadership material.

We need to reimagine leadership so that the ideal workers are not the ones who stay at work the latest, but the ones who get all their work done and leave at a reasonable hour; they are not the ones who get on a plane on a moment's notice, even with a nanny in tow, but the ones who figure out how to conduct the meeting without having to travel.

NEW YORK TIMES

• Anne Weisberg is senior vice-president at the Families and Work Institute.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 25, 2015, with the headline 'Flying nannies no fix for workplace culture'. Print Edition | Subscribe