New York Times Op-Ed Piece Commentary: Susan Lambert is Right, But This is Not Only a Women’s Issue

I generally agree with the sentiment in this excellent NYT op-ed piece by Susan Lambert of the University of Chicago from last Thursday (Sept 20, 2012).  In it she argues that women on the low end of the wage scale are hurt by unpredictable and inconsistent work schedules (e.g., waitress shifts) and women on the high end of the wage scale are hurt by increasingly long time demands.

However, I find it limiting that her piece is written as if these are challenges unique to working women.  It seems to me that men face many of the same problems with their work schedules and demands, and that they would also benefit from the proposed reforms Dr. Lambert argues for. 

Specifically, Lambert writes:

Rather than being long and relentless, work hours in hourly jobs, especially low-level ones, are often scarce, fluctuating and unpredictable. Sales associates and restaurant servers might be scheduled for 7 hours one week and 32 the next. Hotel housekeepers might work Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday one week, and then Sunday, Thursday and Saturday the following week. Schedules are often posted just a few days in advance…. The lack of stability is especially hard on parents. Unpredictable work schedules leave them scrambling to arrange child care and reluctant to volunteer for school events or to schedule doctor’s appointments. They make it tough to establish the household routines that experts tell us are essential for healthy child development, like bedtime rituals, homework monitoring and family meal times. Unstable hours also result in unstable earnings, a nightmare for parents on tight budgets.

…Professional positions come with fixed costs (yearly salaries and benefits like health insurance) that are incurred regardless of how many hours the employee works. So employers have an incentive to have those individuals work as much as possible. One person is often doing the work of two….  Professionals are expected to remain electronically tethered to their jobs day and night or risk forgoing coveted opportunities. Both groups of workers lose earnings if they interrupt their careers to care for family members — as women at all points on the socioeconomic spectrum are more likely to do than their male counterparts.

Dr. Lambert then advocates for updated labor laws that would change the incentives employers have for offering sporadic and inconsistent scheduling to low-wage workers and demanding long and “always available” hours to high-wage employees.  Specifically,

To do that, the government must reform the Fair Labor Standards Act. Enacted in 1938 — decades before women’s labor force participation became the norm — the law established a minimum hourly wage but did not guarantee minimum weekly hours for any job (though unions may bargain for minimum hours). This reform would encourage employers to make full use of their hourly employees instead of overhiring, at low cost, a pool of on-demand shift workers.

The law also did not mandate that salaried workers get overtime pay. Requiring overtime pay for professionals would encourage employers to minimize unnecessary face time and to hire assistants to reduce the demands on professionals.

… [these reforms] would create more entry-level professional positions for college graduates and better-paying jobs to lift low-income families into the middle class. It’s what women want and what our economy needs.

I believe Dr. Lambert’s recommendations warrant consideration from employers, advocates and policy-makers (I would also recommend she make an argument why adopting such changes could be good for business, despite higher labor costs- and there is an argument to be made- Dr. Lambert, call me maybe! – but that’s another story).  And, while it is true that women tend to bear more of the burden of balancing work and family than most men, I would think an advocate of her position would want to enlist as much support as possible.

Framing sensible workplace reforms as an issue for all employees- men and women- will, in my experience, lessen the resistance “old-school” managers and cultures may have for “soft stuff” issues.  General flexibility is less likely to be seen as a “mommy track women’s issue” as opposed to a serious issue that affects us all- men and women alike.

That would mean opening her argument to the benefits for men as well as women. I think Dr. Lambert’s essay is well-reasoned and her ideas worthy of consideration.   I would looooove to change that last sentence, though.   

“It’s what women WE ALL want”

There.  Fixed it.

What do you think about both this post and the original op-ed piece?  We’d love to read your thoughts in the comments section.

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