On June 23, the White House Council on Women and Girls, the Department of Labor, and the Center for American Progress hosted the Summit on Working Families to foster a national conversation about the need to modernize American labor laws to better meet the needs of working families. An upgrade to the 9-to-5 workday is long overdue, as American families look very different now than they did 50 years ago: Women make up 47% of the workforce, and in about three out of five married couples with children, both parents work.
The summit tackled a number of important issues: the need for paid maternity, paternity, and sick leave; the reality that work-life balance isn’t just an issue for working mothers; the ongoing problems with the caregiving industry; and the mind-blowing truth that a company that promotes a healthy work-life balance is a healthier company itself, with more productive employees and better retention of top talent.
Amy Joyce and Brigid Schulte offer a great play-by-play of the summit for the Washington Post, and you can watch a recorded webcast of the entire event on the summit’s webpage. I didn’t have time to watch all nine hours of coverage (and I doubt many parents will), but, after viewing many of the panels and reading a number of working parents’ responses, I must add my voice to the chorus of parents nationwide already asking, now what?
Everyone—the president, the summit attendees, every journalist and blogger nationwide—agrees that the summit certainly raised awareness and furthered an ongoing national conversation, but that there’s very little the federal government can actually implement. Jessica Grose of Slate sums it up well: “The best possible result for the summit is that local and state legislators and activists feel a burst of support and greater awareness, because if we’re waiting around for the federal government to do anything, we’ll be waiting a very, very long time.”
The president’s executive actions are temporary, and Congress is gridlocked. So, what can working parents and employers, armed with data and talking points from the summit, actually do? Here are a few ideas.
1. Start the Conversation About Work-Life Balance Within Your Organization
Real change must happen at the company level, one office at a time. If you’ve successfully negotiated a flexible schedule or achieved a work-life balance that is keeping you sane, tell your colleagues how you did so. Start an informal discussion group (even a lunchtime book club) about work-life balance.
If you’re a manager, be transparent about how you maintain your own balance, ensure that your employees are aware of any available flex time opportunities, and, most importantly, withhold judgement if and when employees take advantage of them. Too often, we judge our colleagues and direct reports when they need flexibility to handle family obligations. Measure your team by the quality of their work, and keep in mind that more flexibility can often lead to more productivity, not vice versa.
2. Be an Advocate for Birth Control and Sex Education
Working families need birth control. There’s no question about it. We have the right to make choices about the size of our family, and birth control is a critical component of doing so. Likewise, too many young people become working parents far earlier than they should because they can’t access birth control or aren’t educated about safe sex, and many of those young parents drop out of school or must take low-wage jobs with no flexibility, beginning a decades-long struggle to provide for their children with a job that can’t pay the bills and doesn’t offer paid sick leave. (More on that, here.)
A national culture that supports working families must originate in the classroom, not the break room. Let’s set families and businesses up for success by keeping young people smart and safe. (And while the Supreme Court’s decision about Hobby Lobby has been discussed ad nauseum elsewhere, I must concur that it’s illogical, and very bad business, to deny the right to affordable birth control and fail to offer paid maternity and paternity leave.)
3. Speaking of Young People, Talk to Your Kids About Work-Life Balance
While we all strive to leave work at the front door, it’s important to talk your kids, especially teenagers and college students, about work-life balance. If your kids demonstrate a passion or talent, talk to them about the real-world careers those proclivities could develop into and the lifestyle and economic implications of particular career paths. Don’t shy away from talking openly with your children about how much money those roles earn. Go online and research opportunities, trajectories, and salaries together, or, better yet, put your teen in touch with someone who’s in his or her dream job. If we begin to talk to our kids about how a job is only one component of a life, we’ll help them become contributors to a more balanced work-life culture in the future (and—bonus!—help them understand why we, as parents, have to make tough choices between work and family).
While the Summit on Working Families may not lead to any direct policy change, it has kept the work-life balance debate in the news and contributed to its ongoing re-branding. Flex time is not a trendy bonus offered at startups so young kids can work in the middle of the night. And work-life balance isn’t just a women’s issue, or even a parents’ issue—it’s an issue for anyone who cares for an elderly relative, needs to recover from minor surgery, or has to take a half-day off to take their dog to the vet. A new approach to work-life balance is just common sense, and American companies should get on board, with or without government mandate.