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Will the Workplace of the Future "Lean In" to Women and Parents?

Will the Workplace of the Future "Lean In" to Women and Parents?

The past twelve months have seen an unprecedented public conversation about women in the workplace. It seems likely that the volume of this dialog will not diminish anytime soon, but will the workplace of the future be shaped more by current dialog on gender issues or longer term trends?

First, I should acknowledge a development that could overshadow all others. The timeframe in the question, 2025-2030, is within the forecast made by futurist Vernor Vinge and others about the arrival of Singularity – the melding of machine and human cognition and reasoning to create superintelligence. The problem with predicting how this will affect the world and workplace is that nearly everyone with the technical knowledge to comment on Singularity agrees that only a superintelligent entity can understand what superintelligence could create. Nevertheless, the prospect of Singularity underlines the critical importance today of getting young women involved in computer science, bioengineering and related fields. I, for one, would not want to live in a world where such unpredictable superintelligence was created and guided exclusively by men.

But assuming that Singularity is still more than thirty years away, as Ray Kurzweil and others project, different aspects of technological progress may shape the workplace twelve years hence. For those in skilled professions, the increasing ease of moving information to and from anywhere could continue the trend of more work being done in offsite locations and outside standard office hours – a big help to overburdened working parents. But technology often is just an enabler of policy changes, rather than being the driving force behind them. A CEO can always require the workforce to be in the office, as has Yahoo's Marisa Mayer.

With the aging of the millennial generation, generous leave policies and schedule flexibility could become more important than high salaries in attracting and retaining many of the most talented workers. One estimate is that by 2020, there will be only six desks for every ten office workers – many of whom will be flexing. (This won't necessarily hurt office furniture sales. Furniture manufacturer Steelcase is selling whole new workspaces for the offices of the future. Ka-ching!)

But my writing focused on leave and flexibility policies urges caution in projecting dramatic changes by 2025. Rates of change across decades for many markers of women's advancement seem to move in concert with the availability of alternative work arrangements, and these markers do not support the notion that alternative working will grow more rapidly in the next thirteen years than it has in the last. Moreover, people whose life experience does not span the entirely of the modern women's movement who today look at women's progress since the late 1960s may be subject to what I call the "Mad Men effect" – assuming that changes for women since the days of secretaries and housewives have followed a straight upward sloping line. In fact, the line started to curve downward before the turn of the century, and in many respects, recent progress has been nearly flat.

I am not the only one sounding the alarm. Sheryl Sandberg is one of many who have described how few women make it to the top, and how those percentages have changed little since the beginning of this century. Underlying Ms. Sandberg's self-described "sort of feminist manifesto" is her suggestion that as women rise to the top they will make policy changes to help other women, but there is little solid evidence to support this hope. Indeed, even she does not rely on the expectation that business will lean in to mothers' needs. Nearly her entire focus is on encouraging individual women to work as ambitiously as they can to get as high on the ladder as they can before procreating, and to choose their co-parent well.

There was a burst of enthusiasm for flexible working arrangements early in this century, but corporations tended to view it as a recruitment and retention tool rather than as a smart core business practice. When the first whiff of smoke from the economic meltdown of the Great Recession irritated directors’ noses, many of these employee benefits were thrown into the fire along with millions of laid off workers. Citing a major study, The New York Times observed that since 2005 “employers have cut back on alternatives that would enable employees to spend significant amounts of time away from full-time work, like career breaks or moving from part time to full time and back again.” Given that very few changes have been made to Wall Street regulations that would prevent another meltdown, what is to prevent the next recession from sweeping aside future expansions of workplace flexibility? (Not even under discussion is the German model of avoiding layoffs in a recession by reducing everyone's hours and filling the lost pay with unemployment insurance payments.)

The concept of flexible working has been turned on its head for unskilled or semiskilled workers not prized for thought production or problem solving. For example, a current trend is the use of computer programs for shift scheduling in retail and other service industries. The result is unpredictable schedules for employees that change from week to week and even hour by hour as consumer demand varies. Called just in time scheduling (JITS), it wreaks havoc with parenting because it makes childcare, and school and doctor appointments a nightmare. It also usually results in fewer hours and less pay for each employee. If an employee can’t work this way, so the reasoning goes, there are others waiting in the wings to take her job. In this and other ways, workplaces may become less attractive for parents in jobs where training is minimal, and experience and loyalty are not valued by employers. Government intervention could alter this trend, but that seems unlikely.

A remarkable thing about JITS is that all it required was sophisticated computer programs and a recession. Acceptance of this practice needed a large force of workers so desperate for a job that they would tolerate wildly varying schedules that they would not know until a week in advance. If the economy really picks up steam and service workers are in short supply JITS use might recede, but don't bet on it. Absent unionization or regulation, individual workers lack the power to alter their terms of employment.

Among twenty-two nations with developed economies, the United States was sixth in workforce participation by women in 1990, but fell near the bottom to seventeenth by 2010. Researchers estimate that the U.S. would have retained its high ranking if it had family friendly policies such as the right to work a part time schedule.

The U.S. culture of full time or nothing may have helped keep it ranked high internationally in the percentage of women in director level positions, but would allowing periods of part time work in the future hurt women's ultimate career achievements? Not if men were also using flexible working. Many commentators have observed that use of workplace flexibility policies will not become widespread until men begin to use them. But flexing men often face career stigma worse than that suffered by women. And, as The New York Times wryly noted, "if nothing is changing for men, nothing is changing for women.”

So if you believe that much of business change comes by example from the top, and if you are a CEO, you may hold the answer to the question "Will the workplace of the future be a great place to work?" If you are not a CEO, there is no time like the present to imagine the kind of workplace where you'd like to work in 2025 and get active in trying to make that happen. Tell your boss, co-workers, friends, family and elected officials what you want. Alternatively, you could start your own company.

Robert Waring is the author of Upside Down: The Paradoxes of Gender in the Twenty-first Century. HIs essays on workplace flexibility have been featured in the New York Times. His other writing has covered the First Amendment, the privacy of mental health information, and how films portray law, lawyers and the legal system. He has worked in a wide range companies from small to large, both foreign and domestic, including Citibank and IBM. He also founded a small business with a dozen employees. As an attorney he has practiced employment law, worked with California’s judiciary and legislature crafting hundreds of laws, and has been court-appointed counsel for thousands of children in foster care. Follow him on Twitter @upsidedownbook and at www.upsidedownbook.net.