Women in the US are used to inflexible work policies that force them to make trade-offs between their families and their careers. But 31-year-old writer Britni de la Cretaz didn’t expect to run into that dilemma at a women’s conference.
De la Cretaz had been accepted to speak this fall at BinderCon, a feminist conference in New York City meant to help writers from diverse backgrounds level the playing field. She let the conference organizers know that she’d have a six-week-old baby in tow, and asked if she might bring her infant to the conference. Then they turned her down. BinderCon has a strict policy: No one below the age of 18 allowed.
“This is a conference that’s supposed to be providing opportunities for people who are marginalized in the writing profession, and here I am, being discriminated against and marginalized for my parental status,” de la Cretaz says. “I shouldn’t have to choose between accepting a career-boosting opportunity and caring for my child; there’s no reason I can’t do both.”
Yet it’s a choice that parents in general, and working women in particular, often have to make.
In the absence of affordable childcare options, parents’ best choice can be to bring their kids to the office with them. But employers don’t always take kindly to the idea of tots in tow. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) recommends against allowing children in the workplace, citing issues with workflow and productivity, as well as potential liability for employers.
These may be reasonable concerns—but in banning children from professional settings while failing to provide alternative childcare options, employers put working parents in an untenable position.
Organizations often argue that they have good reasons for keeping kids away from professional settings. Leigh Stein, a writer and co-founder of BinderCon, said that while she understands de la Cretaz’s predicament, accepting a babe-in-arms could lead down a slippery slope. “If we said nursing babies, why not toddlers, why not teens?” she said. “Where can we draw the line so that the needs of mothers are satisfied?” She notes that the restriction on children was the result of a group vote by BinderCon’s committee of women volunteers, and that the conference does offer a $250 stipend for childcare. However, as de la Cretaz notes, New York City rates for infant care tend to run much higher.
It’s not unusual for women to disagree about whether children should be able to attend career-based events and workshops, as well as work itself, according to Deborah Epstein Henry, co-founder of the consulting firm Flextime Lawyers.
“Women are all going to make different choices about their work-life balance, and when some women see a different way, they can get defensive,” Epstein Henry said. In the legal profession, older generations of women often had to make difficult sacrifices in order to succeed in their careers. Their experiences dealing with such hardships can color their opinion of the challenges younger mothers currently face.
“Generationally, some women didn’t have the same choices that junior women have,” she says. “It’s hard to celebrate the fact that junior women have more choice, when you have had to choose between having a family or a career.”
Another issue is that some women may feel the presence of children at work or conferences delegitimizes the professionalism of the space. “You’d never see an infant at the male conference,” Epstein Henry said, referring to the BinderCon scenario. “Does it make the women’s conference less serious?”
That said, businesses that fail to offer flexibility to working parents may wind up hurting their own productivity and experiencing increased absenteeism—a result that’s bad for the bottom line. And while the issue is of particular concern to women, it certainly affects men as well. When White Sox baseball player Adam LaRoche was told he couldn’t bring his teenage son to the team clubhouse anymore earlier this year, he retired from baseball at age 36 and walked away from a $13 million contract.
There’s also an element of class discrimination to policies that forbid mothers from bringing their kids to the office or work events. The mothers who can afford off-site care are able to continue furthering their careers, while those who don’t have the money are stuck at home.
In the long run, it’s far better for both businesses and workers if companies are sensitive to family needs. Carla Moquin, founder of the Parenting in the Workplace Institute in Salt Lake City, says it’s possible to formulate workplace policies that welcome children while maintaining productivity and order. Her organization’s website lists over 170 organizations that already allow parents to bring babies to work.
“We believe that the majority of companies could allow parents to bring their older children to work on a regular basis very successfully,” Moquin told SHRM. “In our experience, as long as there are clear guidelines, allowing school-age children at work can be very beneficial for families as well as businesses.”
There are other options as well. Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company, offers onsite childcare with exceptional results—particularly when it comes to gender equality in the workplace. As Jenny Anderson reported in Quartz last year: “100% of the women who have had children at Patagonia over the past five years have returned to work, significantly higher than the 79% average in the US,” As a result, Anderson noted, “50% of managers are women, and 50% of the company’s senior leaders are women.
Flexible work-from-home policies are another possibility—and one likely to appeal to people with and without children. Thanks to remote technology, 37% of Americans already work from home at least part of the time, according to a 2015 Gallup poll. In addition, 50% of Americans hold jobs that could be telecommuting compatible, and more than 80% of workers say they’d like to work from home, according to The American Community Survey conducted by Global Workplace Analytics.
Government policy could go a long way toward ameliorating the situation, too. Federal and state governments could give money to businesses so they can provide childcare amenities to those who need them. And working parents could receive tax credits and deductions that would help them offset the cost of paying for childcare.
Whatever the solution, it’s clear that the country as a whole needs to start taking families into account—and get serious about gender equality. Although gender roles are evolving, the brunt of the childcare responsibility and the rearing continues goes to the mother in most cases. If we want to pay more than lip service to the idea that these realities shouldn’t hold women back in their careers, the working world needs to stop seeing kids a sign of unprofessionalism.