Saturday, November 21, 2015

On CEOs, privilege and the taking of parental leave

The news this week that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg will be taking two months paternity leave with the arrival of his daughter is positive. Of course, at a practical level it does not change a thing for the vast majority of American workers whose access to any form of parental leave (forget paid!) is extremely limited if it exists at all. On the other hand, by coming out so publicly with his decision Zuckerberg does send a message to workplaces and parents, particularly fathers, who do have access to leave that they should absolutely utilize it.

Zuckerberg's public statement adds weight to the public policy argument for extending paid parental leave to all American workers. On his Facebook page he says: "studies show that when working parents take time off to be with their newborns, outcomes are better for the children and families". Significantly, his statement very firmly centers the needs of the child rather than the more commonly cited "economic" benefits that are used to justify what should be a universal entitlement.

At the same time, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has stated that she will be taking a mere two weeks off after the birth of her identical twin girls, just as she did when her first child arrived shortly after she took over Yahoo.

In her role as a CEO, Mayer faces a degree of scrutiny and criticism that is not experienced by male CEOs at the best of times, let alone when pregnancy, childbirth and parenting decisions enter the mix. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a male CEO feeling the need to publicly outline his plans for the care of a newborn, which is in part what makes Zuckerberg's very public statement so refreshing.

In a sense (and somewhat ironically, given her extreme privilege), Mayer's "choice" - while not constrained by personal finances , access to affordable (even quality) childcare or the 1000 logistical considerations that working parents face - is constrained in a way that is not unfamiliar to female workers. They must prove themselves against a norm that presumes there is a wife available on the home front who will look after all aspects of bearing, birthing, feeding and care of any offspring produced during the course of a working life. Nowhere is that outdated norm stronger than in the upper echelons of corporate America.

Mayer - and more to the point female workers - cannot win until paid parental leave is available to all workers and the expectation and reality is that it is utilized without fear of reprisal, of subtle and not so subtle forms of discrimination on return to work by both mothers and fathers.

So again, yay Mark Zuckerberg for taking a stand for the utilization of paid parental leave but lets remember that he is protected by the privilege that goes with being male, a privilege that is not available to any female worker, even one who has reached the level of CEO.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Paid Parental Leave: Going beyond the 'business case'

It is rare for a discussion of provision of Paid Parental Leave in the media to not start and finish with a focus on the "business case". And too often proponents of PPL adopt the language and logic of the marketplace in making their case, rather than shifting the debate to one that focuses on the rights and needs of children and those who care for them. 

The limits and dangers of the focus on the "business case" to justify provision of PPL can be seen clearly in the language that has been used to describe Netflix's newly adopted far-reaching PPL policy: a "perk" to retain its "highly valued" workers and to attract new talent in the highly competitive Silicon Valley marketplace. 

Netflix's new generous policy does not extend to its less valuable employees (more easily replaceable) in its DVD division. The "business case" does not take into account the needs of babies, which are consistently the same regardless of the value of their parents as employees. 

The human rights case for PPL focuses on the rights and needs of babies and those who birth and/or  care for them. Babies needs, their complete and utter dependency on their caregivers for survival, must be recognized, honored and met and this basic human right should in no way be determined by the value of their parents as workers in a marketplace.

Provision of universal PPL recognizes that those who carry, birth, breastfeed and care for babies and young children are performing important, necessary work. That work benefits not just an individual baby, their parents and family but the whole society and as such that caregiver should not have to shoulder the significant economic impact of that burden alone. 

The human rights case for universal PPL recognizes that caring work remains highly gendered, that failure to support and compensate those who care for babies and young children - to recognize this care as 'work' - perpetuates patriarchy, reinforcing the lower social and economic status of women as a class. 

Failure to adopt a universal PPL scheme means that we tacitly accept that only babies born to privileged parents should have the right to have their needs fully met; and that those who shoulder the burden of caring for societies most vulnerable should bear that burden alone. 

Just as we should not rely on the logic of the marketplace to support the case for PPL, we should not be satisfied with a situation where access to PPL is entirely dependent on a combination of the goodwill and fortunes of employers.

America needs to adopt a universal PPL as a matter of urgency and as one of the last countries in the world to do so it is in the fortunate position of having a wealth of models and experiences to look to when devising its own version. 

Monday, August 3, 2015

We've taking to correcting each other.

"You got the mult-I-grain bread" said my daughter.

I gasped. "Mult-I-grain. You said 'mult-I-grain. Its mult-eeee-grain."

We giggled. And she accused me of similar crimes.

"You sound so American when you talk to shopkeepers. I've really noticed this lately."

We are social creatures (even the engineers among us). We cannot help but mirror the speech patterns of those around us.

Yesterday, my husband said we needed 'to-may-to sauce'. Of course, if he was truly Americanized he would have said ketchup but this was enough for us to pounce.

"To-may-to" we said in a chorus. "We don't say to-may-to. Its to-maaaah-toe".

My kids still seek out the 'bubbler' when thirsty, a far more evocative word than the utilitarian sounding 'water fountain', but my youngest was recently mystified when I offered him an 'ice block' rather than a 'popsicle'.

This morning I watched my youngest checking himself out in the bathroom mirror, rearranging the strands of hair that fan his neck and face. And as he explained to me what he was doing it dawned on me the degree to which his accent has become Americanized.

He was surprisingly slow to pick up the American accent, given that children are the most susceptible. The fact that his accent has now shifted to the degree that it has is a marker of how far he has come since we arrived, from a shy 4-year-old to an 8-year-old who is spending the last few weeks of the endless summer break for the most part happily participating in that most American of institutions, Summer Camp.

My oldest son is the biggest corrector. He can't stand that his younger brothers sound so American, to the point that sometimes to our ears it sounds almost comic,  as if they are deliberately exaggerating the way they speak.

I lecture and berate him about not lecturing and berating them: "There is no right way of speaking. They live here, we live here. Their accents are going to change."

I don't mention the changes that have taken place in his own speech patterns, less noticeable but still distinct changes in his inflections that mark him out as an Australian who has been here for some time.