October 06, 2015 Practice Points

Looking at "A Toxic Work World"

By Megan Conner

In her recent article for the New York Times, Anne-Marie Slaughter discusses the repercussions for American society from the pressures of competitive and demanding work environments. Slaughter points out that this problem affects employees “from hotel housekeepers to surgeons” and that health experts are beginning to see stress as an epidemic.

Much of the stress, in Slaughter’s opinion, stems from the rigidity of the typical American work environment, which does not allow the flexibility many employees need to care for family members. This affects women in the workplace the most, many of whom leave their careers altogether. “America has unlocked the talent of its women in a way that few nations can match; girls are outpacing boys in high schools, universities and graduate schools and are now entering the work force at higher salaries. But the ranks of those women still thin significantly as they rise toward the top, from more than 50 percent at entry level to 10 to 20 percent in senior management.”

Slaughter points out that although the problem is frustrating for women in professional careers (such as the young lawyer who had to turn down a general counsel position because her employer refused to allow her to work from home one day a week), the situation is far more serious for the millions of women on the brink of poverty for whom having a sick child, a school holiday, or an elderly parent needing extra care one day actually puts their jobs at risk.

This is not, Slaughter notes, simply a “woman’s problem,” but a problem “with the workplace, or more precisely, with a workplace designed for the ‘Mad Men’ era, for ‘Leave It to Beaver’ families in which one partner does all the work of earning an income and the other partner does all the work of turning that income into care.”

Slaughter cites to a study performed at a global consulting firm at which management believed there was a gender problem because just 10 percent of partners were women, although 40 percent of junior associates were female. The researchers surprisingly found that an equal number of men and women had left the firm in the preceding three years, contradicting the firm’s belief that their main problem was women leaving the firm for family reasons. “The firm’s key human resources problem was not gender, as management believed, but rather a culture of overwork.”

How can we fix this problem? Slaughter believes that we need to become more like other industrialized countries and “build an infrastructure of care.” This will require changes including high quality and affordable child and elder care, paid family and medical leave for men and women, a right to request part time work, job protection for pregnant employees, and educational reform to make schedules more compatible with a digital rather than an agricultural society.

Is this impossible? Slaughter points out proposed legislation from both Democrats and Republicans that would be moves in the right direction, such as a bill that would allow employers to offer paid leave hours instead of overtime pay. She notes that our society has changed greatly for the better over the past 50 years for many groups, and is hopeful that eventually we will “see men who lean out for care as role models just as much as women who lean in for work.”

Keywords: litigation, woman advocate, law firms, women, caregivers, work-life balance

Megan Conner works at Bradley Arant Boult Cummings, LLP in Jackson, Missippi


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