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The Most Dangerous Kind of Bribe

There’s a room in my apartment that makes me nauseous. It’s well lit, properly ventilated, relatively tidy, and quiet. Whenever I can, I avoid it. It’s my home office and, in addition to the minimum amount of time I spend on-site at my place of business, I work in that room anywhere from 32 to 60 hours a week. Like many other women working white-collar jobs, I take advantage of “flex-time,” which allows me to work from places other than my office, provided I am productive and my clients and boss are satisfied with my performance.

A whole literature has developed, in response to studies and anecdotal evidence, to debate the merits of flex-time. Harvard Business Review, Business Week, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and U.S. News and World Report are all in on the action. With huge companies like Best Buy, IBM, and Sun Microsystems as flex-time pioneers, attributing the successes of the experiment to an “age of innovation”, the enormous infrastructure cost savings associated with this work trend will likely increase its popularity. In addition to an estimated 200 billion dollar cost savings annually, flex-time allows large companies a competitive edge in the muddy waters of “total compensation.” And while productivity and community-building problems are now causing the second wave of flex-time advocates, such as Cathleen Benko and Anne Weisberg of Deloitte, co-authors of Mass Career Customization: Aligning the Workplace With Today’s Nontraditional Workforce, to recommend amendments to the rules, everyone agrees that flex-time is great for women.

The upshot of workplace flexibility is that it’s easier for everyone to work more. Despite the superficial advantages of working from home, or your car, or the pediatrician’s waiting room, corporations that subscribe to a flex-time model report that employees take less vacation and tend to work more than 40 hours per week. The upshot of flex-time for women is that we can remain professionally engaged while reproducing. To this end, the philosophy of flexibility, as it is presented in the literature in such articles as “The New Mommy Track” by Kimberly Palmer, is likely to consider this progress. Palmer quotes a Pew study indicating that most moms (let’s face it: most people) would prefer to work part-time, but notes how flex-time allows them to continue working, albeit full-time, and avoid “opting out” of the work force for a number of years, which ultimately leads to professional alienation and lower pay.

If you consider participation in a wage system an expression of freedom, then flex-time is making women more free. Women’s wages, however, are an inauspicious testament to the equality of this system: it is universally acknowledged that American women make, at most, around 75 per cent of what men make for doing the same work; that the pay gap widens over the course of their careers; and, rather than getting better with time, the pay gap is getting worse.

With the advent of flex-time, it is possible to make lower wages and feel a lot better about it. Despite the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibiting workplace discrimination based on gender, many employers discriminate, overtly and covertly, and most women don’t complain. People feel that sex discrimination is nearly impossible to prove.

And it is. For better or worse, our legal system allows employers extensive personal discretion with regard to hiring, firing, and remuneration practices. American capitalism leaves the benchmarks to the market, where employers have increasingly gained bargaining power and an overworked, under-specialized work force is being taught to consider “flexibility” an aspect of compensation. Recent studies have hypothesized that the pay disparity results partly from women’s sub-par negotiation skills without acknowledging that these negotiations are influenced by the larger cultural assumption that women, and particularly mothers, are lucky to be working at all.

In this way, it’s possible to understand the known disparities between men and women’s salaries not only as an economic expression of ingrained sexist social mores and their attendant devaluation of women’s contributions, but also as a crime to which women are knowing accomplices in the name of flexibility. None of the recent literature on flex-time suggests that men are foregoing pay increases or other benefits in order occasionally to stay home from work with a sick kid or to leave the office on-time to pick a kid up from daycare. But women compromise on behalf of their families all the time, and they don’t work less.

Acknowledgement of exploitation seeps into the otherwise fairly jolly characterizations of flex-time by both men and women: more hours, often worked at home, during time that would have been traditionally spent on leisure or family. Again, however, the party most negatively impacted by this boundary-blurring is women: they’re working as much as men are, getting paid less, and losing few household management responsibilities, which translates to working two jobs and getting paid for only 3/4 of one. Thus, a more realistic assessment of the pay disparity indicates that women make 125% less than men for unequal work.

The stress associated with the double-duty of business life and household management (simultaneously, if her BlackBerry has its way) cannot be understated. Even as women have gained professional credibility and women’s magazines toy with the idea of evolving gender roles (cute, sexist articles about “mannies” abound), studies show that women are cooking, cleaning, and taking principle responsibility for the household with the same vigor described in 1950’s home economics textbooks. Women working office jobs know as well as men do that running a household is much more difficult than working for a corporation.

This secret was revealed to me when I returned to work after 7 weeks maternity leave, leaving my daughter in her then-unemployed father’s care. Despite the emotional toll of this separation, I immediately recognized that I was getting off easy. At home, I over-compensated, guiltily remembering the peaceful lunches consumed in front of my computer while my screaming infant was being rocked to sedation a subway ride away. Fathers I’ve worked with acknowledge the relative ease of office life, but do not compensate. They feel that their financial contribution rectifies this inequity. For moms who work flex-time in order to vigorously maintain household management, this bargain translates into endless servitude. Indeed, the breadwinner status of the man of the house, which supposedly justifies this arrangement, is likely a result of the “unequal pay for equal work” problem, making the unequal work distribution all the more bitter to accept.

Women I’ve talked to acknowledge foregoing raises and promotions, abdicating healthcare and 401K benefits, and exempting themselves from the bonus pool in order to have workplace flexibility. Some of them are satisfied with their situations, which allow them to reconcile the need to provide for their families with the need to care for them. None of them says she would necessarily choose this arrangement were there a stronger social safety net, resembling the one existing in many western countries, to relieve the desperation associated with healthcare, childcare, social security, and access to safe, competent public schools.

People work so hard because they can’t afford not to. Flex-time appeals because its pro-market ethos legitimizes purchasing power as progress and the family as a surmountable hurdle that can be co-opted in the service of the market. And as the U.S. shifts from a manufacturing to a service sector economy, white-collar work, with its “total compensation” benefits, carries more appeal than ever. Flexibility will be another unfair advantage rich families have over poor ones. Just as violent video games and rap music have desensitized “Generation Y” to violence, globalization neutralizes us to exploitation. For a generation for whom “the 24-hour workday” is a given, the potential mutual exploitation afforded by flex-time represents the most dangerous kind of bribe: a good one. It might work, too, if women shut up and do the heavy lifting.

R.F. Blader can be reached at rfblader@gmail.com

 

 

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