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American women are leaving the workforce in record numbers, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center, but the recession isn’t to blame. Since the height of the economic crisis in 2008, the number of stay-at home moms is up 3 percent since 2008. What’s behind that shift?
On Monday, America Tonight’s Michael Owku profiled a trailblazing woman on a mission to overhaul the American workplace and workaholic culture. Sabrina Parsons, CEO of Palo Alto Software, encourages her employees to bring their children into their Oregon office whenever is convenient. On days when there’s no school, there are six or seven kids coloring, playing video games or reading around the office.
As more parents seek a balance between career and family, America Tonight teamed up with the BlogHer media network to conduct an online survey covering work-life balance and the idea of having kids in the office. Of the 644 people who took the survey, almost two-thirds of the respondents were parents or guardians.*
We asked if employers should let employees bring their kids into the office on occasion:
While that privilege might be convenient for parents if there’s no school or if childcare falls through, the thought of sharing office space with children was dreadful to some people who responded to our survey.
"Other parents' ability to bring their children to the office would be a serious detriment to my ability to do my job," one worker wrote. "I should have the freedom to elect not to be around other people's children, given that I've taken the appropriate measures to ensure I don't have any of my own to be responsible for."
Tampa resident Courtney Nawara was one respondent with experience being around kids at work. She used to work for a small company that allowed children and pets in the office. On days when there were one or two kids and one or two dogs in the office, it usually wasn’t a problem, she said. But when there were five of each, things could get a little loud.
Nawara had an office, so she could just shut the door, be with her own dog and put on headphones, but other employees with cubicles had to deal more directly with the fracas.
"I think pets are OK. I think kids are OK provided they are quiet," she said. "Some of them were so good and they would color for hours, but there were some kids wanting to run around screaming and chasing the dogs."
Fair to everyone?
Our survey also asked if parent-friendly policies in the workplace are fair to employees who don't have kids. More than 60 percent of respondents said these policies are only fair if everyone gets the same flexibility, not just the parents.
We asked people how their work habits changed after having kids. The three most popular answers were:
36 percent took parental leave
23 percent now work from home at least part time
20 percent left the workforce for more than a year
"With two children, I was less able to do the after-work socializing that my boss informed me was 'part of the job,'" one mother responded. "I wanted to go out. But I was nursing a baby, so I had to go home."
Becoming a mom made Amber Wright an even busier woman. In addition to being a wife and mother of a 3-year-old, she’s a full-time meeting and event services coordinator at California State University, Los Angeles. She also teaches college courses at night and runs a personal business as a speaker, writer and blogger.
"I'm the woman people ask, 'How do you do it all?'" she laughs.
But she has a warning about seeking a work-life balance.
"Balance is a myth – and it's something we chase," she said. "It really comes down to priorities. Who needs my time and attention the most today?"
Wright said that having her baby ignited an entrepreneurial spirit in her.
"I'm very driven by this idea of being available for her," she said. "I want to work for myself so that I can have more control over my schedule and be more present with my family."
Wright said that she and her husband had to renegotiate their household roles as the recession hit and he was laid off. He watches their daughter two days a week when she isn’t in preschool.
"Marriage is a partnership. He does a lot on the home front," she said, "and we're both doing what we need to do to keep our household running."
The survey also asked people how their workplaces support a work-family balance for parents. Of the roughly 500 respondents who are employed, these were the top three answers:
32 percent can work from home if there's an illness or emergency
23 percent aren't required to take a vacation day for medical appointments for any family member
17 percent can work from home one to two days a week
Robin Farr, a mother of two who lives in Calgary, Alberta, and works in communications for an airline, told us that becoming a mom made her re-examine her priorities and that has informed her approach to being a manager:
“I can't imagine how parents in the U.S. do it with little (or no) maternity leave. It astonishes me. It must be so incredibly hard, and not good for anyone – the parent, the child or the employer. If there's one change that can be made, supporting maternity or parental leave has to be it, whether it's done at the government level or by employers. I'm the manager of a team of nine, only two of whom have children. I understand fully how those two need more flexibility, but I don't actually differentiate between the people who have kids and the ones who don't. Everyone needs flexibility, for a variety of reasons. Whether it's a yoga class, time at the gym, an appointment or simply a break so they can work when they are the most focused and most likely to be productive, I encourage all my employees to take the time they need.”
Then, we asked what parents would want from a company to make their lives easier. The top three responses were:
17 percent wanted the ability to work from home if there's an illness or emergency
14 percent would want longer paid maternity/paternity leave
14 percent called for a Results-Only Work Environment, also known as ROWE, in which employees aren't required to be any specific place, but are measured by their work output
"If businesses are going to offer more 'family-friendly' benefits like this then they should be more open to who my family might be," one man who’s not a parent told us. "Not every family is a mom and a dad and a few children."
Our question about whether becoming a parent changed people’s views on personal and professional success provided some interesting answers. Many people told us a flexible schedule has become much more valuable to them.
"[Becoming a parent] did change my perspective on what matters the most in my life," a single mother of a tween wrote us. "It used to be money, and now it's time."
“Since having kids, quality of life and flexibility are equally as important (if not more important) than salary,” said Britt Reints, a mother of two who lives in Pittsburgh.
Reints said when she was younger, the only standard she knew for judging success was money. But her views began to change after she had her second child at age 25.
She worked in advertising sales at a large corporation that had mandatory in-person sales meetings at 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Reints said that working model is outdated and was draining, considering her 45-minute drive to the office for “stupid meetings” twice a day.
“That job could have been done differently,” she said.
Reints is now an inspirational speaker and writer who also does social media marketing for small businesses. In her freelance work, she considers her quality of life and how flexible her schedule will be, in addition to how much she’ll be paid.
"I’m just as willing to work as hard," she said. "Some people seem to think parents don’t want to work so many hours. If the kid’s soccer game is at 3:30, it's at 3:30. I’m happy putting in 8-9-10 hours [a day] on a project, if I have the flexibility and opportunity to do it when’s best for my family."
She added: "Most people have plenty of hours in the day to work and have a family."
*Editor’s note: Our survey was not conducted in a scientific manner. The respondents were self-selecting, but their answers show some interesting insights about experiences in the modern workplace and how workers would like to see employers help them lead fulfilling careers and lives at home.