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I quit my first job after one of the managers locked me out of the work schedule for three weeks as punishment for going out of town at the last minute to visit my father, who had moved out of state for work while I was finishing high school. I wasn’t happy about it — I liked my job, coworkers and most of the management, and it was rewarding to step toward adulthood by earning my own money — but I didn’t need the job, so when it became clear that the work was inflexible, I turned in my ugly green polos and hightailed it outta there. My parents went back to paying for my Blockbuster rentals and after-school slushies, and I returned to sleeping in on Sundays and letting other people bag my groceries.
Unfortunately, most of the world isn’t a privileged middle-class teenage girl looking for something to fill up their spare time, so when they have a job, it’s actually so they can, you know, sustain themselves and their families. Women especially are feeling this pressure, as 40% of households now have a woman as sole breadwinner — that’s up from 11% in 1960. Which is why recent stories about workplaces creating schedules around just about everything but what their most vulnerable employees need to survive are more than just upsetting; they’re downright infuriating.
First, on Wednesday, the New York Times published an exposé on big companies that use scheduling software to juggle its low-income employees into complicated and inflexible timetables that will ostensibly boost profits and productivity. That story focused on 22-year-old Jannette Navarro, a single mother whose Starbucks job has helped her save money toward buying a car, but only at the expense of her flexibility, familial relationships and education. Unpredictable back-to-back shifts and schedules released only days before they start mean that Navarro has to rely on family members for last-minute childcare and kept her from committing to a schedule for getting her drivers license, among other things. Her boyfriend eventually breaks up with her after telling her he’s overwhelmed by her schedule. “You’re waiting on your job to control your life,” she told the Times.
Starbucks actually responded quickly to the story, announcing changes to its opening-closing shift policies and plans to enforce an existing rule about posting schedules at least a week in advance. But of course the problem is more widespread than a single company, even one as big as Starbucks, and study results released Monday show part of the cultural biases at play. Those findings, from a Furman University sociological study that asked 646 participants to consider work scheduling requests from the role of an employer, found that people were more likely to grant requests from men than from women, in addition to finding men who asked for flexibility more “likeable” and “committed” to their jobs. Yes, that’s right: Men who ask to work non-traditional hours or from home so they can care for their children are considered more likeable and dedicated workers than women who request the same accommodations for the same exact reasons. All this because of some backward notions about who should hold responsibility for childcare and who should be earning a family’s money. According to the lead researcher, Christin Munsch:
“These results demonstrate how cultural notions of parenting influence perceptions of people who request flexible work. Today, we think of women’s responsibilities as including paid labor and domestic obligations, but we still regard breadwinning as men’s primary responsibility and we feel grateful if men contribute in the realm of childcare or to other household tasks.”
When you combine these pieces of news with stories like that of Debra Harrell, a South Carolina woman who was fired from McDonald’s this summer after getting arrested for letting her nine-year-old daughter play at the park during a work shift, you see the real, devastating consequences of these attitudes and policies. Women are actually going to jail because they cannot successfully work a system designed to keep them from accessing appropriate jobs and childcare. When women do ask for accommodations, they are viewed less favorably and as less committed, even though it seems like being upfront about your needs should show you’re more dedicated to making a job work.
We already know women make less money than men do for the same work (though there’s some dispute about exactly how much less) and that mothers face higher rates of unemployment than men do. We also know that, by and large, employers are in business to turn a profit, not to work around the individual needs and preferences of every single person they employ. HOWEVER, there is a difference between catering to a single woman who has a hectic schedule and recognizing that a huge category of workers across the board have lives that are incompatible with the ways schedules are determined. When we ignore those incompatibilities, we put women into impossible situations, and then we blame them for being in those situations to begin with. The lack of respect isn’t surprising, but goddamn is it frustrating.