Flexible Downsizing and Sexism: Should we be worried?

by cv harquail on March 10, 2009

There is a movement afoot to link organizations’ responses to the economic crisis to larger social goals, like sustainability and work family balance. Anytime we can get two valuable outcomes for one business decision, "that’s a good thing." Often, however, business decisions made for one reason have unintended repercussions.

Take the movement towards alternatives to layoffs, particularly alternatives that include reducing employees’ work hours either across the board or by employee choice. Reducing work hours may have the unintended consequence of reinforcing gender based discrimination in terms of compensation, authority, and career progress. In other words, they can be applied and interpreted in a sexist way. Let me explain:

Connecting to my earlier posts about authentic alternatives to layoffs , whether layoffs are patriotic, and whether layoffs are sensible economic policy, I’ve been learning a bit about some specific alternatives, like "Flexible Downsizing". The leading voice on flexible downsizing, Cali Yost Williams, has been writing about this technique at Fast Company and also at her blog. Last weekend, Yost Williams was quoted in a a New York Times article about how and why employers might downsize employees’ work weeks.

Why might workers want the alternative of reduced work-weeks?wayout sign w arrow.jpg

Of the many reasons an organization might try flexible downsizing as a layoff alternative is that there is a silver lining in this option for women, and men, who are parents. Mothers (and fathers) who accept reduced work weeks might find that this change in their work expectations allows them to ‘manage’ work and family fit more effectively. This holds for women who work in hourly jobs, where full-time is 40 hours a week, as well as women who work in salaried and managerial jobs, where full-time can mean up to 55 or 60 hours a week.

One of my mom-blog colleagues, The Mama Bee, raised some concerns about this article. The Mama Bee is concerned that women who chose to accept reduced work weeks will get pigeon-holed in the same way that women who mommy track are pigeonholed and often discriminated against. Pointing out that all of the people quoted and 3 of 4 experts in the NYT article were women, The Mama Bee draws our attention to the implicit expectation that down-timing, as a a layoff alternative, is somehow more relevant or appropriate for women than for men.

The Mama Bee notes:

The article suggests that these new part-time positions might offer good options for working mothers, many of whom are ambivalent about working full-time. I like the idea of women having more choices in the workplace; however, things get dicey when the motive is cost-cutting, rather than a true shift towards better work-life balance for employees. Managers may be more likely to cut back hours for women with children, who they perceive as desiring a less demanding schedule, or who they have already “mommy tracked.” (emphasis mine)

The Mama Bee is absolutely on target with her concerns. The logic that (1) women/mothers are more interested in balancing work and family, (2) that women/mothers are more interested in less than full-time, and (3) that reduced work week schedules are more appropriate for women is quite simply, sexist .  Moreover, research does show how individual women lose when they chose to reduce their work hours from full-time and/or to take a mommy track. There is no question that implicit and explicit sexism plays a part in creating a situation where women who work less than full-time are often less well compensated proportionally, and are assumed to be less than committed to their organization and their careers.

What is different right now?

empty offices.jpg In this economic environment, where many organizations are seeking to cut costs, down-timing occurs against a different context. Reducing workers hours and salaries to less than full-time is an effort to reduce costs while keep most everyone employed AND making it possible for the organization to gear back up as business improves. Reduced work weeks are a corporate coping mechanism. This corporate coping mechanism affects most/all employees — it is not a "choice" made by an individual woman to make her personal work-life fit more comfortable.

However — The reduced work week alternative is being ‘sold’ as an opportunity for women/mothers (and some fathers) to have more time with their families. For employees who see this option as a chance to be with their families more by working fewer hours (and families that can afford it b/c the other partner retains his or her job and associated health benefits), a reduced work week feels like a positive "choice".

The idea that employees would be open to it as a positive choice is fine. In this situation, a reduced work week can be a win-win for organizations and families.

But here’s the challenge:

We know from empirical research that when an individual woman shifts to less than full-time work, her wage rate usually decreases, as does her rate of career advancement. In large part, this is because other people assume that this woman is less committed to her organization and to her job than a woman or man who continues to work full-time. Whether or not these assumptions have been ‘true’ about individual women before, they probably won’t be true in this current economy.

Collectively and individually as managers, we will need to reinterpret what it "means" to have a reduced work week against this new economic context. When we meet an employee who is a mom who has taken a reduced week, and when we look at the resumes of these women two, three and four years from now, what will we infer about their motivation? About their commitment to the organization, and about their commitment to their own careers or jobs?

There has always been a flaw in the common understanding of a mother’s choice to reduce her hours at work. It has — wrongly– been seen as an individual-level issue, and the outcome as an individual choice. But the difficulty for moms (and dads) of remaining fully engaged at work while participating fully in their families is an organizational issue. Jobs and careers are designed, and an employee’s performance is evaluated, as though no one has a family life and no one has children. Mommy-tracking has always been the individual mom’s response to a larger and systemic social, cultural and business problem.

We need to avoid sexist interpretations of the motives of employees who reduce their work weeks.

We need to recognize that these women aren’t mommy-tracking. Rather, these employees are taking an economic hit to help out their organizations and their fellow employees. Similarly, we need to adjust our interpretation of the motivations of fathers who reduce their work weeks. They are not losers, slackers or stay-at-home-dad-wannabes, but employees who are helping their organizations cope.

Now, reduced work weeks that may look like mommy tracking or daddy tracking have a different motivation.

We  must challenge ourselves to think differently when we see women and men who have reduced their hours at work. Rather than seeing these people as less committed to their careers, we should understand them to be more committed to their organizations and to their fellow employees. And, if their work and family tensions are eased somewhat, that’s a silver lining.

Macro-Level & Organizational Arguments for Reduced Work Weeks

There are many arguments for reducing work weeks across the board as a way to reduce labor costs while retaining good employees and keeping everyone employed albeit to a reduced level. The Mama Bee points us to an article that originally appeared on The Guardian’s (UK) website, by Dean Baker , a co-director of the Center for Economic Policy and Research: Time for Jobs: How Shorter Work Weeks / Work Years Can Be Stimulus. The article explains how down-timing can help the economy and why it should be part of the stimulus plan. My former Darden students will remember the movie/case about France’s 35-hour work week. Politics aside, the issues are similar. Cali Yost Williams explains these alternatives at FastCompany.

I encourage alternatives to layoffs, like reduced work weeks, not only for their macroeconomic and political implications but also for their organizational benefits . Organizations that choose these alternatives and implement them with a caring (and not mercenary) attitude can strengthen their reputations, build members’ commitment, and retain valuable talent. These organizations also make good on promises to "value" employees. Clocks on Flickr.jpeg

I’m looking forward to someone arguing that down-timing may be a way for us collectively to experiment with more realistic work expectations and more time with families. One silver lining in the financial constraint of a reduced and still adequate income is that it may encourage us to do more with less and to live more simply.

There is no such thing as a value-neutral system change. Some changes can be implemented in a parochial way, blind to the broader potential repercussions and collateral effects. Alternatively, system changes like reduced work weeks can be implemented so that they multiply their benefits to the organization, its members, and society at large.

Let’s look for economic coping strategies that can we can leverage against other goals too.

For more information:

Time for Jobs: How Shorter Work Weeks / Work Years Can Be Stimulus, Dean Baker
Delaware Employment Law Blog “Why Flexible Downsizing is a Win -Win Initiative’, Cali Yost Williams
New York Times–Alternatives to Layoffs: The Shorter Workweek,
Cali Yost Williams
Mandatory Part-Time: A Good Thing?
The Mama Bee
Fewer of you will be listening to someone else
, Sean Murphy
Are Cuts in Hours and Pay an Alternative to Mass Layoffs?
Alternatives to Layoffs: One Truth and Three Lies that keep organizations from trying

Are Apologists for Layoffs Actually Just Bad Economists?

Authentic Responses to Recession? Try alternatives to layoffs