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Job Responsibilities vs. Family Obligations

xcept for NFL linebackers, there are now virtually none of the old male bastions in the workplace where women are not increasingly well represented and accepted. Today, women are doing jobs with comparable competence that only three or four decades ago could only be envisioned as men's work: physicians and surgeons, trial lawyers, priests and ministers, fighter pilots, heavy equipment operators, and investment bankers. In the Twenty-first Century, the question is no longer can women do the job, but can society accommodate the pervasive institutional changes brought about by these contemporary roles of women and men. The emerging business is often challenged striving to respond to this question in creative ways.

          Quite ironically, the core question posed today is the same core question men and women have confronted throughout history: How do we allocate labor between the economic tasks to support the community and the nurturing tasks to sustain the family? Until only 80 years ago, cultures had answered this question with some variability over the ages, but had almost always assigned the immediate tasks of family nurture to women. This had nothing to do with inferior or superior; it was based upon the biological reality that, from adolescence through menopause, women were almost always pregnant and/or nursing their infants. However, even then the care of the many children as well as the aged and infirm was not the primary job of women. Women handled the arduous and demanding tasks of spinning thread, weaving cloth, sewing clothes, laundering, cultivating the kitchen garden, gathering berries, teaching children, cooking and baking for a sizable agricultural community, and nursing the sick and disabled. Today, we forget that domestic servants comprised an important part of the family enterprise and their work was directed by women. Obviously, women were a major part of the workforce; these tasks were just as important and respected as men's work.

          With the dawn of the Industrial Age in the early Nineteenth Century, seismic cultural shifts began to occur. Thousands of young women were recruited from the good farms of New Hampshire and Vermont to tend the sprawling new textile mills in Lawrence and Lowell. These jobs were no more demeaning than their brothers' work back on the farm, or as hands in the new factories. But these were interim industrial jobs; once the young women returned home to marry and found a family, their job was again centered in the home. These jobs were considered to be critical, and society could find no option.

          However, the Twenty-first Century has seen a rush of changes: Most of the traditional household tasks are now performed by suppliers outside the home, both men and women attain much higher levels of education and vocational training, and the number of children per household unit has dropped dramatically. Society no longer has the need for the full-time performance of the nurturing tasks to sustain the family. And society has opened up many new kinds of jobs for women.

          Even today, if a woman or a man has no family obligations — and many do not, by choice — then there is no conflict between family and workplace. However, it is the presence of the family that raises the problems we have yet to resolve. Our obligations to our younger children as well as to our aged parents or even a disabled sibling can unavoidably conflict with our responsibilities to our employer. This strife was illustrated vividly in the recent case of a flight attendant with a major airline. A child at home was worrisomely ill, and she was eager to return to her child immediately after her last flight. However, the union agreement requires a flight attendant to serve one additional flight (overtime) if needed to fill a void in the crew on the later flight. Upon landing and then being instructed to report to this later flight, she refused in order to hurry home to be with her sick child. She was disciplined and discharged for violation of her contract.

          The toughest problems we are facing are how to resolve these conflicts between the traditional industrial workplace staffed almost entirely with men and women without or effectively relieved of family obligations and today's workplace where many women and many men also have and respect their family commitments. Heroic efforts are being made by many employers to provide responsible child care facilities as well as assistance in caring for the elderly. Often, flexible work hours are offered, but this is not always possible. Maternity leave programs are becoming well established, and the "mommy track" is increasingly common in large organizations. Ironically, many of these corrective efforts are now being challenged by men and women without family obligations — the "no-kidders" — who claim this preferential treatment for some employees is grossly unfair to them and may even constitute an EEOC violation.

          The emerging company is often better able to accommodate these discordant family and business demands. It can implement and maintain more flexible policies, respond to special situations and family crises with personal sensitivity and compassion, and foster a healthy corporate culture. Public policy continues to promote family formation. The emerging company is positioned to meet these newly-perceived conflicts between the old and the new in innovative and uniquely human ways.

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Thomas A. Faulhaber, Editor

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Revised:  May  19, 2023  TAF


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