Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Equality or Equity?

We Americans, it seems, are at the end of our pandemic ropes. Whatever collective actions we were going to take to whip this virus, it sure looks like we've already taken them.

We are tired, tired of all of this, and we want to return to some sort of normalcy. Return the kids to school because we're told we have to return to the office. We want to return to our favorite restaurants and vacation spots. To sports. To campus. To the way it was before.

Safely, of course. With masks and distancing. We don't want anyone to get sick. We are good and caring people, but we can't stay inside forever. Life must go on.

But until things are back to the way they were before, we have to struggle through. Mrs. Done by Forty and I are still trying to figure out how to juggle work and watching Baby AF long term, while also trying to use the online & print out resources we can find to make sure he's learning things, something, anything, while he's here with us instead of at daycare. I watch Baby AF for an hour in the morning & an hour in the afternoon, so Mrs. Done by Forty can get some work in. And we both try to do as much work as we can from noon to two thirty or three, while Baby AF naps. That's our crunch time, where we can put our heads down and get some deep work done.

I will be burning through my vacation time the rest of the year, taking 6 hours off each Monday. Mrs. Done by Forty is trying to convince her employer to keep letting her work from home. We sometimes put in some hours at night to catch up. 

We're making it all work, if only barely. It seems like an endurance race. The key is to keep going.

I read an article by Daisuke Wakabayashi and Sheera Frenkel about tech companies that tried to help working parents deal with the added stresses of the pandemic. Salesforce & Facebook, realizing the extra burden being placed on parents, gave six and ten weeks of paid time off, respectively, to workers with children. Twitter allows unlimited time off, which parents could now take more of. And Facebook recently announced parents could take an additional 10 weeks off next year. From the article:

That angered some nonparents. A few wrote openly about how isolated they felt, living alone and not seeing anyone for weeks at a time. The company, they said, seemed less concerned about their needs....

Resentment from employees without children about extra parental benefits existed at companies before the pandemic, of course. But the health crisis has amplified that tension.  

Being a new parent, I can understand the non-parent position because I shared it not too many years ago. Why should parents get additional time off, while non-parents on a team are left to shoulder additional responsibilities in their absence? We know what happens when a colleague goes on an extended leave, or a long vacation, or unexpectedly leaves the company: someone has to pick up their work. 

When a worker takes ten weeks off, that cost is born by the workers who remain. It's the same dynamic that is impacting the parents themselves: when the childcare worker is no longer there to provide childcare, when the school is no longer there, that work has to fall to someone. 

When that work falls on you, it might not seem fair. Why should you work more? They chose to have children, not you. Shouldn't they bear the entire cost of that? 

And by the way, this pandemic is not easy on non-parents, either. It's hard to be in isolation for months on end, staring at the same four walls every damn day with no one to talk to. No one to hug. And, yeah, it's really hard to take on extra work from colleagues because they're taking ten weeks of paid time off.

Why shouldn't non-parents get ten weeks off as well? 

There's a logic to this. Maybe benefits should be equal: everyone just gets the same time off.

Perhaps parents shouldn't be the only ones getting six or ten weeks off during the pandemic, or even immediately after the birth of a child. Shouldn't all workers get this sort of time off, if any of them do?

What we're running into is a conflict of ideologies: equality versus equity. The approach aiming for equality says that if something is being given to someone, it is given to everyone. The pie is divided equally. We have a pizza and a family of six people, everyone gets exactly two slices.

The approach aiming for equity is different. It looks at each individual's need and might give decidedly unequal shares to each person, based on their needs. The family of six has three babies: each only needs a slice. The adults & the teenager need more to feel full, and each get three.

In America, a country that is an outlier in how we approach benefits of all sorts, we are closer to an approach that, at least superficially, aims for equality. Not actual equality, of course: that would be absurd. But we prefer an approach that nominally aims for equal, universal opportunity and access to benefits. The common example is that everyone gets access to Social Security, even the rich retiree with the fat portfolio who has no need for that monthly check.

An approach aiming for equity is more targeted: giving greater benefits to those with greater needs, and perhaps none at all to those who don't have that need. These sort of targeted programs are under constant attack. SNAP, Medicaid, housing vouchers, disability benefits, Affirmative Action: with any program that aims for equity for a targeted population, the question is always, "Does this person deserve the benefit?"

No one ever asks whether a retiree deserves Social Security, because we all get Social Security.

That's why the programs that are never really on the chopping block are those with universal access, like public K-12, where everyone can go and get an education. Or FMLA, where anyone can take twelve weeks away from a job for a medical reason, even though it's completely unpaid.

We prefer these sort of universal programs over targeted ones because they tap into the American version of fairness. It seems fair that everyone pays into Social Security, and then everyone gets a retirement benefit: even the guy who makes a million a year,  and who technically paid a lower tax rate into Social Security than someone earning minimum wage.

The rub is that this American idea of fairness makes it harder to achieve certain policies, like universal paid parental leave, because they aren't truly universal. Parents who no longer have very young children and those who have no plans to have children, as the New York Times article notes, aren't going to be enamored with policies that only benefit other workers, while increasing their workload at the same time.

Simply put, we Americans hate the idea that someone else might be getting a benefit that we don't get.

When it comes to paid parental leave, or any leave specific to parents with young children, this is a benefit that many employees can't access in the near term, and maybe not ever. And that makes it an uphill battle to institute these sort of policies in our country.

The sad part is that when we are talking about paid parental leave, we're specifically talking about a benefit that primarily helps women, since they take on a disproportionate amount of the work raising children.

When we look at how many more men work at the technology companies that are seeing employee push back, another possible explanation emerges.

Statistic: Distribution of Facebook employees worldwide from 2014 to 2020, by gender | Statista

Statistic: Distribution of Twitter employees worldwide from 2014 to 2019, by gender | Statista

Salesforce Figures from December 2018:

Within this context, one has to ask whether we should frame the criticism of these parent-focused policies as primarily from "non-parents", or whether the criticism is just primarily from men. If it's the latter, then the resistance to policies that aim for equity takes on a different meaning.

In that context, the desire for policies that equally distribute benefits might not actually be aiming for any sort of equality at all. Rather, when faced with a policy that might primarily benefit women, a policy that might partially address the existing inequalities in the workplace, perhaps the male dominated workforce prefer to leave well enough alone.

Because why would they want to materially address that sort of inequality, if that just means more work for them?

*Photo is from Floris M. Oosterveld at Flickr Creative Commons.

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***It appears all the blog comments from March on have been deleted. I suspect this is user error. I'm so sorry! I'm going to go through my emails and manually copy & paste them back, at least as much as I can.


  1. SavvyFinancialLatinaSeptember 9, 2020 at 8:18 PM

    This is such a hard topic. Loaded topic.

    Parental leave - I do believe in parental leave when a child is first born for both parents (equal leave). But I think the pandemic goes beyond that initial parental leave. I can tell you that as a teammate it's becoming challenging to pick up additional work when I already feel overextended. So I do see a lot of parents especially moms take time or are slower in response. And I know what's going on. So first, I think it's because their partners (often male) do not share in the work equally. Something is wrong there, but I can't butt in the relationship. Selfishly, I do need them to figure it out because their work doesn't go anywhere. The demands are still there. So someone has to pick up the slack. Oftentimes, it does fall on the people who don't have kids. So this year, work is crazy, I haven't taken more than a day off in a row. I have 4 weeks of vacation, and have taken maybe 7 days off this year. Most of the days I do have to login and do some work.

    Sometimes I do get the resentment right now because I feel resentment. I want to take some time off. I need to take some time off so I don't burn out, but how can I take time off? My analyst who supports me is a mom of two young kids and her husband is a contractor. So she has been managing her kids at home and her job. She is juggling and can't cover on everything. It's really hard.

    As far as universal policies, I think this is a broader topic. But if there's anything I have learned from being poor growing up is that you damned if you, damned if you don't. My best advice and what I have learned is have money. Have lots of money. Money allows you to get a nanny at home. Money allows you to have a safety net for expenses. In America, money is what talks.

    1. I can definitely see that view, SFL. I get 28 days of PTO and have only taken off 2 days this year, apparently. It's just too busy to realistically take much time off.

      I personally view the additional time off for parents as akin to any other family emergency: I've had coworkers take long stretches of time off due to a death in the family, or a family member getting sick. It affects work and it sucks for everyone, but that's the nature of working on a team, IMO: teams only work when others pick up the slack, as needed. And it has to be reciprocated.

      If that's not humanly possible (which is the case a lot of the time), then it's the company's responsibility to hire people, perhaps contractors, to help lift the load temporarily. That's the rub: companies are often unwilling to hire even temporary labor during these periods.

      And there are 29 million Americans seeking work right now who'd love to help out.

      As per usual, management wins when labor is divided.

  2. SavvyFinancialLatinaSeptember 9, 2020 at 8:20 PM

    I completely agree with you it is company's responsibility to take hire more people. But you know how that goes. In previous years, my team has flexed. I have been one of those people that takes on additional responsibility for the team while someone is out. Especially new parents. I have encouraged it. But I think I'm beat....I have started to say no this year. That's how I got an analyst to support me in March. And she's completely busy with work I was doing as a side gig. And then again a few weeks ago. And another analyst has been reassigned to me. In reality, I have been doing 3 people's jobs for a super duper long time.

    Honestly, even though I sound frustrated, I am often more times than not frustrated when I hear my female colleagues take on most of the responsibility of parenthood. Where are the husbands?

    There seems to be a view for young moms that is the way. They don't want to give up time with their kids. But it creates a down hill environment where this continues to happen.

    Honestly, even though most households have 2 income people, if they have kids, there seems to still be a disconnect on sharing responsibility.

    It's become even more apparent during the pandemic. There needs to be a re-education of society.

    Sigh...this year has been rough.

    1. I hear you and I think we're on the same page.

      As for where the husbands are, often it's a single parent household. At least that's how it was for me growing up.

      But YES, men need to be taking on more of the work. That was really the main point I had in this thread and, ironically, that might mean taking on more of the work in the office, if, collectively, they're not taking on more of the work at home.

  3. SavvyFinancialLatinaSeptember 9, 2020 at 8:21 PM

    Hey when it's a single parent household. But in my work circle of people, my experience has been that most women are married. So in this case, yes, where are the spouses?

    Except with men skirting responsibilities at home, it may seem like they are superstars because they are taking on more of the work. Then they get promotions and then it's another cycle...

    As a female in the workplace I see this.....Men get promoted, but then they have spouses doing a lot of heavy lifting at home, which makes sense why they can spend so much time at work.

    I've met very few executives who actively work on being present at home. In the US....When I worked for a Swedish company, the Swedes had a different mentality.

    1. I see that same thing, SFL. Men have a ton of advantages in the workplace due to things like emotional labor & household labor on behalf of women.

  4. Revanche @ A Gai Shan LifeSeptember 9, 2020 at 8:21 PM

    As a parent, I viscerally resented the resentment of the idea that parents are "getting more" because that's definitely not what it feels like, we have way too much on on our plates. And I've always known that was the case for parents even long before I chose to become one. But that bit I can understand. It's totally human and especially logical given how companies aren't dealing with it in a good way.

    I resented the rest of it because, as a manager, I go to great lengths to make sure everyone is asked to do the same and is given the same - what they need and ask for. *This* resentment is directed at companies who don't make that kind of effort when they have so MANY more resources than we do. Particularly these tech companies - they have much deeper pockets and should be cranking back the work and priorities across the board to make time and space for their employees. It shouldn't be a matter of pitting parents against non-parents, it should be the company-wide policy to reduce the strain on everyone because our bandwidth and ability to absorb further issues is seriously affected by all the terrible stuff going on.

    ALL your people should be supported!

    I approve everyone's requested time off for any reason wherever possible (which works out to: I haven't said no to anyone yet), and we distribute the work as evenly as possible. When it's available, I also bring in outside temporary help as well. I haven't taken one vacation day this year but everyone on my team who wanted or needed any time off has gotten it. This isn't being a martyr, I will figure out how to take care of myself as well but I couldn't worry about my own time off until I made sure they were taken care of. My first priority as a manager is to make sure they're able to do their work, which means letting them recharge. I am also working on figuring out how to reduce their workloads without compromising the quality of the work we produce. These are steps that should be top of mind for anyone in management if they actually manage.

    It sucks but SavvyFinancialLatina is right - have lots of money. That's what talks here. :(

    1. "It shouldn't be a matter of pitting parents against non-parents, it should be the company-wide policy to reduce the strain on everyone because our bandwidth and ability to absorb further issues is seriously affected by all the terrible stuff going on."

      This. And this does seem to be the problem with any sort of targeted approach aiming for equity: it pits people who don't get as much of the benefit, or any, against those who do.

      I love the approach you're taking as a manager. Mine has done the same (i.e. - is fine with me burning through an absurd amount of PTO through the rest of the year).

      I agree that having money stacked up for times like these is a great tactic for the individual. Just knowing how unlikely that is for most workers though (median earnings are, what, like $34k per individual worker as of 2018) makes it a tough strategy to apply broadly.

    2. And even if it was a likely path, stacked money still doesn't help if you don't have actual help you can hire and trust. We could potentially spend the money for childcare but the only people we know we can trust aren't available and we don't trust 99% of the people out there to be able to quarantine as strictly as we do or to tell us the truth about what they're doing. So it's not even an actual solution. It's just a "it maybe COULD be less bad if..."

      Though of course it would be very helpful to have lots of stashed cash if you were in the position of having to quit. That's a different story. But still a crappy one.

    3. Good call out: money won't solve every problem. Like you, our decision not to send Baby AF back to daycare isn't a question of money but one of how likely he is to contract COVID and bring it home. Like you, we've been more careful than the average person in our community. We're just not at the point where we want to take that risk yet, unless we have to.

  5. The question about where is the partner (could post as a reply for some reason). If both work full time and there is now no daycare or school. Then each only has half the worktime they had before if they share equally in looking after the children. We are lucky that here (in this part of Australia) schools went back in May and daycare never really shutdown but they strongly discouraged us from sending our child there till the schools went back. Also, my wife has been on maternity leave this whole time which helped as she didn't have a paid job to do. Without all this it would have been really much more terrible than it was, which was bad...

    1. Agreed on the two full time working parents. Mrs. Done by Forty and I are doing the best we can splitting time, but the kid needs supervision every waking hour: we're taking on a full time job & splitting it. There's just no way around it: it's several hours of extra work every day, no matter how evenly we split it.

      We, too, are not sending Baby AF to daycare. Just not risking our health for some job.

      Best of luck to you during this tough time, & congrats on the little one.

  6. This is so tough. My opinion is that it does lead back to 1) management adding help and/or re-priortizing so that the amount of work that needs to be done is reasonable for all and 2) the government providing some sort of backup support (financial) so it doesn't all fall on parents or companies.

    In normal times, the calls for equal parenting by both partners (where there are 2) is somewhat reasonable, but in a pandemic if you are stuck without public school / childcare, it just isn't enough. Both parents can split equally, and there still simply isn't enough time, depending on ages and demands of the kids.

    My workplace has been handling it gently and well, but - I was still dying and we are now using childcare again. I really feel for parents who aren't or can't, even if it is by choice.

    1. I agree on both counts, SP. We need management to add staff or reprioritize work to account for this new reality, and our government should, like all countries like ours, have more financial support & programs like universal parental leave.

      As you note, you can split the pie any way you want and parents are not able to deal with the added jobs of full time daycare worker, teachers aid, etc. on top of their normal full time jobs. Something has to give.

      Glad to hear that daycare is now available to you again and that it is helping. That's awesome.


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