Employers Must Respond To Make Sure Women Keep Pace in the Workplace

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As we celebrate Women’s History Month in March, we recognize that 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan’s life changing book The Feminine Mystique which ignited the women’s liberation movement and caused immense social and political change on all levels. Today, women can be seen in every facet of the workforce and hold positions as truck drivers, mail carriers and university presidents.  In recent years, we’ve also seen a female Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense and Speaker of the House in the US Congress.

However, a recent article in The Atlantic states that while the US workforce radically changed from the 1970s to 1990s and women entered the labor force in droves, the latest research shows the rest of the world has shot ahead and far surpassed the US when it comes to women in the workforce. The article questions whether the US is “falling behind on women in the workplace?” 

Currently, the US ranks 17th for women’s workforce participation among 22 developed nations. Cornell University economists suggest this is not by accident. They suggest the US has not kept pace because significantly more family-friendly policies have been adopted elsewhere which make it easier for women to work part time and take time off after childbirth to care for young children. 

Challenge for Employers

It seems that the challenge for employers is in striking a balance between enacting family-friendly policies that will encourage talented women to stay in the workforce while minimizing the risk of sex discrimination and unlawful stereotyping of women as solely wives and mothers who must attend to caregiving responsibilities. 

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotamayor, only the third woman on the Court and the first Hispanic American woman, recently questioned whether if she had chosen to have a family, she could have advanced in the manner that she did. Facebook COO Cheryl Sandberg reviews women’s progress in leadership roles in her new book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, and encourages working women, especially mothers, to “lean in” and assert themselves in the workplace with the hope of achieving a balance between professional achievement and personal fulfillment.

However, the fact remains that employers must do everything they can to recruit and retain talented women and mothers, promote family-friendly policies and minimize liability for family responsibility discrimination and sex discrimination.

Employers Should Understand What Family Responsibility Discrimination Entails

Family responsibility discrimination (FRD) or caregiver discrimination is an umbrella term for different types of discrimination. In general, it occurs when employers treat employees or job applicants differently because of their caregiving responsibilities for young children, elderly parents, or partners or spouses.

No federal law explicitly prohibits FRD, but individuals can find protection under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act’s ban on sex discrimination, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Equal Pay Act (EPA).  While men can also be subject to FRD, more women are victims. Examples of this type of discrimination include:

  • Denying female employees with young children the same opportunities and compensation as male employees with young children; 
  • Reassigning a new mother to less desirable tasks based on the assumption that she will be less committed to her job; 
  • Retaliating against employees for seeking leave under the FMLA or taking time off to handle caregiving responsibilities; and
  • Giving female employees lower subjective ratings after they take on caregiving responsibilities, without any actual decline in job performance.

What Employers Can Do

As a result, employers must be proactive and minimize the risk of engaging in family responsibility discrimination by taking the following affirmative steps:

  • Implement and enforce practices that prohibit discrimination and harassment based on the family and caregiving responsibilities of employees such as discrimination and FMLA policies;
  • Provide regular training sessions to all employees and supervisors so they know how to identify FRD in the workplace and work to create an atmosphere of tolerance and sensitivity with regard to caregiving responsibilities;
  • Take all complaints of FRD seriously and respond immediately with a prompt investigation and if necessary, remedial measures; 
  • Understand federal, state and local laws requiring employers to provide time off from work for caregiving responsibilities such as FMLA, school visitation leave, etc.;
  • Reasonably accommodate employees’ requests for leave, time-off or altered schedules which will allow them to balance work and family obligations; 
  • Avoid negatively stereotyping employees and applicants with caregiving responsibilities and focus on qualifications and merit;
  • Make sure policies and practices with regard to compensation and performance evaluations do not discriminate against employees based on caregiving responsibilities or discriminate based on sex;
  • Consider flexible work arrangements such as telecommuting, job sharing, and permitting employees to work part time or flex schedules; and
  • Provide family friendly incentives such as backup childcare and social work services.

Share Your Perspective

What types of measures have you instituted in your workplace to minimize family responsibility discrimination and promote women and mothers with caretaking responsibilities? We would love to hear your thoughts. Please get in touch via the comments box below or via BethZoller1 (twitter).


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