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#MeToo Banished Some Workplace Relics. Let's Keep Going 

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The challenges and questions raised by #MeToo won’t go away in 2018 any more than President Trump’s tweets will.

We’re in a reckoning, and leaders across every imaginable kind of business, organization or operation must take seriously the call to create better workplaces — free of sexual harassment and bullying, and consistent with people’s professional aspirations and personal lives.

Thanks to #MeToo, we’ve settled the question of whether parading around naked in a bathrobe or screaming obscenities at your subordinates are acceptable management practices. They’re not. Here’s one more workplace relic that needs to be upended: the old workplace fiction that people don’t have families.

Human beings have been reproducing since the dawn of the species. They generally like their families, want to be with their children, have older adults in their lives who need care, and want to be engaged in their communities.

Let’s stop treating the idea that an employer who support its employees' lives outside the office is radical, or even enlightened. That should be the baseline. “Family-friendly workplace?” Forget it. How about, “Reality-friendly workplace?”

Granted, we’ve come a long way when it comes to family rights at work. We passed the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, and by 2012 nearly 10 percent of U.S. companies were providing onsite childcare. But we still have a long way to go.

This is a world where “Lean In” — the women’s workplace manifesto — at least in part called on women to do what men do, even as we've learned that men don’t necessarily like the workplaces they have created. A recent study from the Center for American Progress, notes that between 1977 and 2008, the percentage of men reporting work-family conflicts grew 25 percent.

This is the world of Apple and Facebook’s approach to working women: We’ll freeze your eggs so you can have your children later. It’s a world where the head of Yahoo told her employees they could no longer work from home, then built a nursery at the office for her own child. A world where, despite a requirement of the Affordable Care Act, only 40 percent of women have access to the time and location necessary to pump breast milk after having a baby.

Paid family leave in this country is still a luxury. One study found that women’s workforce participation has been dropping disproportionately in the U.S., in part due to insufficient paid family leave. According to a recent piece in Slate, “In the past decade, the number of weeks of leave the average company offers has decreased, and employers have gotten less likely to offer leave at full pay.”

... the most exciting aspect of that change for my employees was having someone in the top office who lived the same struggles at home that they did.

#MeToo surfaced work environments hostile to women, hostile to subordinates and beholden to those with power. The need for “reality-friendly” workplaces relates directly to those problems. A workplace that makes it hard for people with family obligations to prosper disproportionately disempowers people who have those obligations (read: women for most of last century) and gives vast power to those who either don’t, or can turf them to someone else.

When I became the first woman CEO of Catholic Charities, it immediately became clear that the most exciting aspect of that change for my employees was having someone in the top office who lived the same struggles at home that they did. I am a working mom.

More subtly, when an employer treats life outside the office as negligible, meriting disrespect, or even the enemy of the bottom line, it risks treating employees who have children, or an elderly parent to care for, or any number of other circumstances, as unimportant and lacking competence or effectiveness. In an environment where that kind of attitude is pervasive, you can imagine abuse might become common — and tolerated.

So, what do we do?

The women of Hollywood put their plan on full display at the Golden Globes and with the launch of their Time’s Up initiative. They are calling for everything from pay parity to proportionate representation in senior management and the boardrooms of entertainment companies.

Ideas from human resources consultants, work and family specialists, organizational design experts and business gurus offer specific policies for better integrating work and family in ways that make workers happier, and therefore more productive.

To make way for any successful policy, however, first we must change the mentality that people who have professional lives shouldn’t also have personal lives. As we purge professional spaces of troglodytes, let’s also roll the subtle, pernicious idea that work and family are like water and oil into a blanket and toss it in the river. I’m for the reality-friendly workplace.

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Tiziana Dearing Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Tiziana Dearing is a professor of practice at Boston College School of Social Work.

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