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June 18, 2013

The Single Girl's Second Shift

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The fairness issue isn't just about ethics. Treating employees the same across the board, regardless of marital and child status, just makes good business sense, says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, economist and founding president of the Center for Talent Innovation—especially now that 43 percent of Gen X women are child-free, and 77 percent of Gen Y women don’t have children (but might still choose to). "The businesses that adopt policies which support their employees without children will experience more staff loyalty and improved productivity—at the same time, they will be showing that they are forward-thinking and aware of the needs of the growing number of single, childless women on the job," she predicts. Companies like Apple, Google, and LinkedIn are quietly offering workers leeway in how they spend part of the workweek to encourage creativity and boost morale without affecting productivity. Consumer products giant Unilever encourages all of its employees to adapt their schedules to their own needs; nearly half of the staff telecommutes and almost three-fourths work a compressed week, without any harm to Unilever's bottom line. (Taking a different approach, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer recently curbed telecommuting, sparking a huge media firestorm.)

According to federal Equal Employment Opportunity laws, any benefits that a company offers to one employee—like leaving the office early from time to time—have to be available to all, says human resources manager Alice Winston, who's worked for small fashion houses and big corporations in New York City. But often that's not the case. "There’s a double standard," she says. "Parents have a built-in compelling story. If you tell a manager, 'I was here from 9 to 5, and I have to leave because that’s my arrangement with my sitter,' that’s the person who gets to go home."

Dianne Baxter got so fed up with that double standard that the 40-year-old senior vice president for a Wilmington, Delaware, bank finally brought the issue to her human resources team. "At first I took it in stride when my colleagues would expect me to work on Saturday because someone’s daughter had a ballet performance and they assumed I had nothing to do—but then asking me to switch became an all-the-time occurrence, and it reached a tipping point," she says. After talking with senior management, Baxter and her other childless colleagues who’d been called on to pinch-hit asked HR to hold an intervention. Confronting the parents involved "a lot of uncomfortable shifting and a lack of eye contact," says Baxter, but in the end, she won out when HR required the same schedule for everyone.

In Baxter's case, it was smart to call HR, but in many instances, you might be the person who needs to create—and enforce—your own boundaries. Says career consultant Liz Ryan, a former Fortune 500 HR executive: "If your coworkers are leaving early because of their kids' soccer games, get your own 'soccer game'—like a class that requires you to leave at a certain time every week," she says. Be prepared to show that your work won't suffer, and "find a trusted senior ally, one without kids," advises Hewlett. "She can help you frame the conversation with your boss." Mary Smith, a 26-year-old public relations executive in Chicago who used to work marathon 12-hour days while coworkers with families left the office earlier, says that her new boss appreciates that Smith leaves early once a week for a religious-studies class and uses her lunch break to hit the gym. Her boss’s response: “I should work out myself!”

“No one respects the people who are slaves to the job,” says Ryan. They’re often setting themselves up for more work and fewer accolades. “Build the muscle to say no. Men realize that it’s not about getting a gold star; women are raised to think that saying yes makes you a good girl.”

Setting boundaries around your inadvertent second shift will take some getting used to, sure. But as the payoffs roll in (more free time, less stress, and a greater sense of well-being) the best reward won’t be that you’re no longer feeling taken advantage of—but that you never lose sight of the meaningful life you have outside the office, too. 

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