Our assumptions about work and workers

Yesterday I posted about sexist discrimination in the workplace, and noted:

So there’s the gendered, identity-politics side of the argument. But there’s a slightly broader set of assumptions in play, around work and workers, regardless of gender – and my thoughts on that got a liiiiittle bit long, so tune in tomorrow.

And here it is! Am I not a beneficent goddess?

We make a lot of assumptions about the nature of work, and our – really, employers’ – expectations of workers. You see the sharp end when people refuse to hire women because of course they’ll have kids and of course this will be a massive drain on the business.

But those memes are just the sexist subset of assumptions we make about work and workers. And those assumptions hurt us – workers, society, and business.

(I will note a lot of this post focuses on pretty middle-class notions of work – permanent/fulltime/office-based, and this does not nearly cover all types of work and workplaces.)

Workers are “an investment” as opposed to “people”

A common complaint from employers who want to be allowed not to hire women is that they’re the sexist pigs real victims here. It goes, “I put all that time and money into training someone, then they leave and I don’t get any benefit from it!” Or “it’s too hard to train someone else up when women go on maternity leave!” Or “why should I pay women equally if they’re not going to stick around?”

As I covered yesterday, this “logic” doesn’t fly. Men aren’t guaranteed to “stick around” either – welcome to the generations Y and Millennial, who don’t plan on stepping straight from school into a life-long career with one employer.

Plus, you’re paying people for the work they’re doing now, not the promise of future work – unless you own an American sports franchise and are in the habit of signing people to ten-year contracts.

Besides, what’s the problem with having multiple people who are skilled and equipped to do your work? Heck, if someone goes on parental leave and you train up someone new and awesome to do the job, you have more options, don’t you?

The parent doesn’t want their job back – you’re covered, and don’t need to panic about handover. They’re both so productive you expand the team – isn’t growth a good thing? Or they agree to job-share, and now you’ve got back-up if one takes sick leave – whether it’s for their children or not!

Maybe the new person goes off to another great job, upskills even further, and comes back some day to add even more value – because they remember how you gave them a chance.

Actually, workers are an investment. Treat them well, develop their skills, and long-term you’ll reap the rewards. The real problem is that a lot of employers are just bad at investing.

All jobs must be 40-hours-a-week and flexibility is too difficult

This isn’t just about women, and it’s not just about parents. I know plenty of childless dudes who are night owls. They’d love to do their eight hours from 5pm to 2am, or work Sunday to Thursday, or ten hours/four days a week. Or work 35 hours. Or 20 or 30 as a job-share.

They’d be happier, healthier, and way more productive. The financial benefits would be huge. The social benefits in terms of job creation, prosperity, health, community would be revolutionary – and happy, prosperous societies are good for business too.

But a lot of us in desk jobs are churning out 8 hours a day, Monday to Friday … if we’re lucky. When the boss is putting in 60+ hours, there’s pressure to stay longer. When you’re billing in 6-minute increments, taking a full lunch hour means wasting 50 billable units every week.

Then there’s management anxiety. How many managers say “I need you to be in the office when I’m in the office” or “I need you to look busy when the senior manager comes around”? Or freak out because you leave at 4:55 to get a quicker bus home?

The assumption is that workers are inherently lazy (that’s why we have to force people off the dole) and won’t do good work without someone standing over them. Or anything which isn’t “core work” (a great rightwing “bureaucracy busting” meme) is a waste of resources – god forbid you stop for a cup of tea and the Five Minute Quiz to refresh your mind and build relationships with your co-workers.

We’re all meant to be lean mean cogs in the machine, individuals competing against each other, so there’s the assumption that sharing jobs and knowledge is a bad thing. After all, if Jo and I share a client list, and I work Monday-Wednesday and Jo works Thursday-Saturday, Jo might steal all the credit and get a bigger bonus!

Or, not pitted against each other, we could both be relaxed and fulfilled, we could juggle days if one of us (or our kids!) got sick and our clients would get great service. I’m sure there’s money to be made in that somewhere …

Managing people is haaaaaaaaaard

This always gets me, as a unionist. The myth that it’s too difficult to manage people’s performance, which is why bosses like Peter Talley need the power of summary dismissal without appeal.

I’ve never been a people-manager. But I’ve had good ones, and terrible ones. The good ones did bizarre things like sit down, set goals, and check in regularly to see how I was going. The bad ones were “too busy” to have regular meetings which usually resulted in some workers (funnily enough, not the parents) doing poor jobs and others burning themselves out to get the work done without seeing much reward. Guess which teams had higher churn?

The quality of management in New Zealand workplaces is poor, and this affects productivity (which is the only thing that matters.) There could be many reasons for this. In my experience the worst managers were expected to do a lot of “front line” work, and were terribly managed themselves, always putting out fires with no time to actually manage.

Sometimes you wonder if self-preservation is at work. If some organisations stopped managing-by-crisis and took the time to develop the best ways to get results and how their resources should be deployed to support that, I suspect some bosses would find they were part of the problem, not the solution.

So instead of addressing the big issues, they jump to the quick and dirty solutions: firing people at will. Paying workers off in exchange for not taking annual leave or sick leave. Refusing to hire women.

And that’s how we get back to sexism, work and parenting. It’s so much easier to write off an entire gender group as “bad investments” than to really, fundamentally change how work works in New Zealand. It’s so much simpler to say “you have kids in daycare, you’ll take too many sick days” than negotiate flexible work hours or job-sharing.

I’ll end with a great irony: you know how daycares are “hotbeds of sickness”? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that we, as a society, do not support parents, of any gender, to be at home with their sick children. If you have to be at this meeting and your partner cannot miss another day this month and both your parents are still working and little Jimmy has the sniffles, little Jimmy goes to daycare. The other kids at daycare get sick. Their parents get sick.

And that’s just great for profit and productivity.

Sexism, babies, and our assumptions about work

It’s 2015, and we’re constantly told that sexism is over, feminism has had its day, and would you nagging witches please just simmer down already?

And then this happens:

An Auckland mother was told that having her kids in daycare could affect her job prospects because she would need too many sick days to care for them.

The mother rang O’Neils Personnel Recruitment Agency about an administration-manager job advertised on its website this week.

“The woman I ended up speaking to asked me if I have any children,” said the mother, who did not wish to be identified. “When I said yes, she asked if they would be in daycare, which they would be.

“She then proceeded to tell me that the client would not be interested in me as an applicant. Why? Apparently because daycare is a hotbed of illness, and I would have to leave work all the time, because they would be sick all the time, and when you are employed you have to be there, to do the job.”

A better headline might be “Sexist assumptions cost woman job chance.”

I’m going to be honest, here: I do not believe that Ms Sleep, the recruitment agent quoted in the story, asks men the same questions. Maybe she asks, “so does your partner take care of the kids when they’re sick?” Or maybe the topic of kids comes up in an interview and she thinks “gosh, he sounds like a nice family man.”

But I sincerely doubt that she’s ever told a man “look, you need to come back to me once you have a Plan B for childcare, because this employer won’t hire you if you have kids.”

We live in a society which makes a huge number of assumptions about work and child-raising.

Women are assumed to be the main carers of children

I know a couple who decided dad would be the stay-at-home parent. This caused shock, because the assumptions are so ingrained – people actually asked her, when she was back at work, “but what have you done with the baby?” – and people asked him, when he took the baby to daycare, “oh … *sad face* what happened to the mum?”

We would sooner assume that a woman would leave her six-week-old baby totally unattended at home, and that a man’s wife has died tragically in the first six weeks of baby’s life, than “she went back to work and he takes care of the kid.”

Ironically, this creates a vicious circle. If you’re having kids in a heterosexual relationship, and one of you needs to take time off after a baby’s born, and the woman in the relationship is far likelier to be paid less or promoted because people assume she’ll be the one taking time off … guess who ends up reinforcing the stereotype?

All women of child-bearing age are assumed to want/be planning children

I have friends who are childfree, and have been for many, many years. And even the women who are most outspoken about never wanting children face the same condescension: “oh, you’ll change your mind when you get older!” and “you’ll feel differently once you meet the right guy!”

There’s a few other poor assumptions right there: all women are cisgender, all women are heterosexual, all cis women can physically have children.

And of course, we can never take a woman’s word for anything because the ~biological clock~ is far more powerful than a silly ~ladybrain~. This points us towards a simple truth: women are seen as less intelligent, capable, and autonomous than men. You could almost argue that the “risk” of pregnancy or childcare impacting on work is a smokescreen; an excuse to justify simply not valuing women as equal human beings.

Children are the only reason people ever miss work or leave jobs

In this 2013 article, recruiter Ryan Densem complains

… he had dealt with employers left “frustrated” from employing a pregnant women after investing time and money into the hiring process and training, only to have to go through the same process a few months later to cover their maternity leave.

Has Ryan Densem really never encountered a man leaving a role within a few months? Does he refrain from head-hunting great candidates who’ve just started new jobs because it would be unfair to their bosses? Do men never get really sick, or injured, or decide to move to a new city?

I’ve worked places with huge turnover. Multiple people quit less than six months after starting. Huge amounts of time and money wasted on recruitment, and work left undone because everyone else was so stretched – and not a pregnancy in sight. There was a poorly-trained team leader and a toxic culture of managerial bullying, but for some reason that’s viewed as unfixable. Much easier to just not-hire an entire gender.

Besides, as recruiter Annette Sleep says in the top article,

It’s risk management and clients don’t pay us a handsome fee to send them risky candidates. The candidates don’t pay us a brass razoo. In business you work for the people who pay you.

Plenty of “handsome fees” to be made off a managerial class who drive good non-pregnant candidates away, I imagine.

What about sick days? Can I refuse to hire young men because they might go to the Sevens every year and I can’t afford to cover their hangover-sickies? People who play weekend sport, because they might get injured?

Ryan Densem wants to pretend that this is all about six-months-pregnant women switching jobs and forfeiting their entitlements to paid parental leave (because this ever actually happens), not systemic and deliberate discrimination against women on the basis of gender. But researcher Annick Masselot notes

“Women are not merely discriminated against because they are pregnant and are about to take a period of parental leave, they are discriminated on the basis of the next 15 years of school holidays”

Because all women will have children, and all children will get sick, and all women will be the ones taking time off because their sick and wanting school holidays off and leaving their jobs at the drop of a positive pregnancy test.

Given all this it’s not surprising that that our Human Rights Act makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex – including

preferential treatment relating to pregnancy and childbirth, and family responsibilities.

At least Ryan Densem has the good grace to be honest about the lies employers tell:

“They’d never say, ‘Sorry, we won’t hire you because you’re pregnant’. They’d say, ‘Sorry, your background and experience isn’t exactly what we’re looking for’.”

It’s okay, Ryan. We know exactly what you mean.

So there’s the gendered, identity-politics side of the argument. But there’s a slightly broader set of assumptions in play, around work and workers, regardless of gender – and my thoughts on that got a liiiiittle bit long, so tune in tomorrow.