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In this episode, Liz Lewis, anthropologist, writer and researcher at Indeed, speaks with Caitlyn Collins, assistant professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis and an expert on work and caregiving. Her book, Making Motherhood Work, looks at how women juggle their professional and family responsibilities. Their discussion covers:

  • How companies can help employees balance care and work
  • Why supporting all workers is a win-win for everyone

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Liz Lewis: Welcome to Season 2 of the Lead with Indeed podcast, where we chat with the experts about the world of work. Here, authors, researchers and industry leaders share their expertise on the science of talent acquisition, management, the future of work and much, much more. 

I'm Liz Lewis, anthropologist, writer and researcher at Indeed. On today's show, I'm speaking with Caitlyn Collins, assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

Dr. Collins is a sociologist and an expert on work and caregiving. Her book, Making Motherhood Wor, looks at how women juggle their professional and family responsibilities and why this is often so hard. But caregiving isn't just about parents. We will all, at some point, provide care for loved ones or for ourselves. I spoke with Dr. Collins to learn how companies can help employees balance care and work. In our chat, she offers research-based insights on why supporting all workers is a win-win for everyone. Let's get started.


Liz Lewis: I'm speaking today with Caitlyn Collins, assistant professor of sociology at Washington University and the author of Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving. Caitlyn, I'm so excited to have you on our podcast. Welcome!

Caitlyn Collins: Thank you so much. I appreciate you having me on today.

Liz: So let's start with some basics. You are a sociologist and your work focuses on gender work and family life. What drew you to this topic?

Caitlyn: What drew me to this topic? I grew up with two parents who loved their jobs a lot. And then my folks got divorced. Then my mom did this as a single mom, her balancing a career that she loved a lot while trying to take care of my sister and me around the clock. And watching her struggle as I grew up, I think to be honest with you is part of my motivation in studying this topic. 

I remember watching a mom like mine who was very smart, very dedicated, committed to being both a good mom and pursuing a successful career. And watching her struggle to make both of those things work even as quite a privileged person, you know, white, highly educated middle class. Even she had a hard time doing both of these things. And my own mom ended up quitting her very successful career in corporate sales and marketing to stay home with my sister and me. She accepted a job that was part time without benefits that paid way less once she became a single mom after a few years of trying to do both because she felt she couldn't be the kind of mom she wanted to be. And she felt like she was constantly failing on the job. 

And so I became interested in these gender work and family dynamics as a result of watching my own mom struggle and thinking to myself as I grew up and of course became a teenager, a young woman and an adult that it shouldn't have to be this hard. We live in a country in general that really individualizes people's social problems. And I think moms’ stress and guilt and overwhelm are often talked about in very individual ways when I actually think that they're social and structural problems.

Liz: Excellent. And what insights can you provide with your training as a sociologist that perhaps someone who's an expert in policy or a company CEO might not be able to? And I'm thinking here — specifically — insights into the world of work and how people navigate that world.

Caitlyn: Yeah. Sociology is the study of how people interact with one another, right? And also the understanding of how people interact with and are shaped and shape at the same time the social structures and institutions of their daily lives. And of course work is one of the primary institutions that we all engage with day to day. And so sociologists bring insight into understanding that interplay between what we talk about as structure and agency. What is it? How do places like work and individuals like workers interact with one another in ways that are patterned, that are predictable and that we can study to not only make of course businesses more profitable and productive, but also workers happier and healthier. So sociology brings a lens through which to understand that relationship that I think at least is really interesting.

Liz: Excellent. And what would you just say to somebody who is not a woman or not a working mom? Maybe somebody who thinks that they don't need to pay attention to these kinds of issues? Why is it still relevant?

Caitlyn: Sure. Yes, so I can talk about this from a couple different perspectives. One might be the fact that at least for men who are in romantic partnerships with women, this affects you. This will affect you if it doesn't already. And I study gender inequality and a lot of people think that means I only study women. But of course gender inequality hurts men too, not just women. And we live in a society where women bear the disproportionate responsibility for the home for both childcare and housework. And part of the takeaway from my book that I hope men understand is that they have not only of course a responsibility to participate equally at home, but they have a right to be involved in their family's lives. 

And for folks who maybe aren't in romantic relationships with women or don't ever plan to have children, of course in general, these sorts of issues impact everyone. When the vast majority of workers in the U.S. — 86 percent of adults in their working age lives— become parents, this means that the vast majority of workers are going to have kids. And if you don't have kids yourself or if you're a manager, an employer, you will have employees who are juggling these responsibilities.

And the research shows time and time again that providing more robust work family policy supports and enables a cultural atmosphere in the workplace that helps folks reconcile work and family benefits the bottom line. It benefits employers. And again, study after study shows that these policies are good for employers as well as employees. And so it's kind of a win-win in that way. And we often don't talk about it that way in the states. I think it's really important that we shift our thinking in that direction.

Facing the crisis of care

Liz: In reading through your book, I was thinking of it almost in terms of ideas of universal design.

Caitlyn: Sure.

Liz: This idea of creating more accessible public spaces, work spaces etcetera essentially benefits everybody.

Caitlyn: Exactly.

Liz: Because even if you're not a parent, you might have to care for yourself or care for a partner at some point or certainly care for aging parents.

Caitlyn: Yeah.

Liz: So it does seem like this sort of thread of care and work really is universal no matter how one individual is positioned.

Caitlyn: Exactly. We don't talk about it that way in the U.S. We are facing what sociologists, including myself, talk about as a crisis of care. But if you think about care, what it means, the kind of everyday work that goes into reproducing a person to be able to eat, sleep, function, work, live, engage in daily life, we all need it.

And we all know people who need it from us. Every person in our society needs care. We all have; we all do; we all will. And so if it is a universal need, why don't we think about designing policies that address that universal need?

Liz: What are some ways that employers can support workers who do have outside caregiving responsibilities?

Caitlyn: Sure. So I think in the U.S. a lot of the most progressive exciting creative solutions we're seeing to a diverse set of work family conflicts are happening at the firm level, at the organization level. And it's because employers realize the value in offering these policies. In all honesty, especially amongst firms like Indeed and other similar employers, these are recruitment and retention tactics. It's increasingly likely that employers are offering policies like some sort of flexible parental leave or caregiving leave, bereavement leave. It is much cheaper for an employer to retain that worker rather than try to perhaps minimally support them during a leave, have it be so stressful that that person ends up deciding the best path forward for themselves is to quit. 

And so that leaves an employer in a lurch. They have to recruit and then train someone to get them back up to the same level of productivity as that person who stepped out for a bit. That's a lot more money. So formal policies like a bit of time away or for example, instituting a minimum for vacation and sick days that workers can either earn or get as a right by virtue of their employment is really valuable. Of course some employers also assist with things like emergency childcare or have on-site childcare solutions, which I think is really wonderful. And I think these policy supports are really important. 

The other side of that coin that I want to mention is, of course, the cultural atmosphere of the workplace. And when workers are afraid to talk about anything but work on the job, this ends up, over time, impinging on their ability to perform their job fully. All of us have interests outside of work. Not all of us feel comfortable talking about them in the workplace, especially women and especially folks who have caregiving responsibilities at home. I can't tell you how many women tell me that they try to avoid the topic of their families or their kids in particular at work.

Liz: Sure.

Caitlyn: I can't tell you how many women tell me they fib about where they're going at the end of the day because it's more likely that an employer is okay with them leaving for their own dentist appointment than it is to go pick up their kid and take their kid to a dentist appointment.

And to me, that lack of transparency about how you're spending your time is part of the problem because it suggests that your employer is not there to look out for you as a whole person. And I think all workers deserve to be seen as whole people in the workplace. And it benefits employers when they do so.

How to beat unconscious bias

Liz: There's a lot of talk in the HR space about unconscious or implicit bias in general, typically around gender, race. But I do think it's a really important topic to address when it comes to caregiving and specifically parents. What are some things that employers can do to raise awareness about unconscious bias in this arena?

Caitlyn: Yeah, I think unconscious bias in this regard is huge, which we call caregiver bias. If we're thinking about how we can address the issue of unconscious caregiver bias in workplaces today, in my mind this first starts with managers and employers knowing what policies are on the books to support parents at their given workplace. The fact that we assume that women are categorically more responsible for the domestic sphere means they are categorically less responsible on the job is really problematic. 

And I think if we bring those assumptions into the workplace, it translates into lots of preconceived notions about who a good worker is, who does and does not deserve promotions and raises, who does and does not deserve mentoring support and opportunities. And so knowing the sorts of policies on the book so that a person or a parent who comes to you to talk about them instead of looking at them puzzled like, “Well I have no idea what our firm does to support folks who have caregiving needs,” educating oneself about what those are so that if a worker comes to you, you can say, “I know plenty about what we have on hand here. Let me tell you about what we have on offer.”

And then also role modeling that it is okay and acceptable to talk about your family at work is something that managers who are in a position of power can do to make the workplace more family friendly and more comfortable. Because it's one thing to have policies on the books and it's something very different for workers to feel comfortable taking them or using them. So those are at least a few ideas I have for kind of shifting the cultural environment and also kind of the political environment. If you know what the policies are and you can help your workers use them, it signals again that it's perfectly okay.

Liz: Excellent. What are some things that recruiters or hiring managers can do to become more educated about their own biases in this regard and also create a more inclusive setting for job seekers?

Caitlyn: So if recruiters, they can say at any stage of an interview, “I have no idea if this applies to you now or might in the future, but I want to talk to you a bit about the sorts of work family policies that X company offers.” And I can tell you from my own partner's perspective. He works at a tech company, and when he learned that his tech company — we don't have kids yet, but we'd like to one day — they offer four months of paid parental leave to men and women both. And for him, that sealed the deal. He was like I want to work in a workplace that values that time spent for a parent with their newborn or adopted child. To him, that got him really excited about what the company stood for. And I think that's one example of — I don't know that most people would look at my husband and think he is probably a dude who would really value parental leave. But he does, and a recruiter mentioning that to him as he was talking to plenty of tech companies about what job he wanted to take, that helped that company stand out to him. These policies are symbols of what companies value.

Liz: How can employers make the hiring process, including interviews, more accessible and perhaps less challenging for parents right now? And I think of that infamous BBC interview with the political science professor and I've watched it so many times during COVID, and his baby flies into the room.

Caitlyn: Yep.

Liz: And then this preschooler sort of dances in. And that seemed in 2017 like it was not quite as widely applicable to the rest of us. But I think most parents I know who are currently at home strongly relate to that video now.

Caitlyn: Yes.

Liz: And I'm wondering how employers can maybe send a signal to job seekers right now that just because you are maybe at home and your kids are at home and you're dealing with all of these really unusual circumstances, that doesn't mean you can't apply for a job. That doesn't mean you can't interview for a job. How can they make the process more accessible and open?

Caitlyn: Yeah. Oh, this is such a good and valuable question, Liz. I appreciate you asking it. And of course, to be honest with you, the first thing that pops into my mind in thinking about that famous BBC video is that — put yourself in the shoes of a single parent who wants to apply for a job with your company. And they need to do that interview over Zoom, for example. And there is no other parent at home to help them. And perhaps they don't have anyone else in their pod to care for that child while they sit for an interview. 

One way a recruiter could potentially make them feel a little bit more comfortable and willing to apply for the job is to say this is an unprecedented time and we realize that other sources of care for kids aren't available right now. Just know that if you need to have a child in the room with you for a conversation that we more than welcome that. Again, providing a bit of understanding around that, saying perhaps in an email, feel free to use a Zoom background, a templated background if you want to. Just thinking about how you can signal that we understand this is an odd, unprecedented and hopefully short-lived time means that it signals that you care again about all of these external extenuating circumstances that really impact their day-to-day life.

Flexibility and work-life boundaries

Liz: What would you say to a skeptic who thinks that flexibility necessarily means that a worker is less productive?

Caitlyn: I guess I would ask that skeptic, “Is there never an instance where you need flexibility every once in a while?” None of us are robots showing up to this job, but kind of in an automated sense. All of us sometimes, whatever. There's a million things that could be causing folks to need a bit of flexibility right now, not just parenting needs. I don't know. I really operate from the perspective that thinking of your workers as whole people will help you be a better recruiter, manager, employer. And it will, again, benefit you in the long run for treating your workers like whole people and not just HR files. 

Thinking again about how to create a bit more space and grace and flexibility for your employees, I think will net major returns in the long run. Even if it does mean it feels like perhaps — I know some workers who have dropped their hours, an hour or two a day right now. Again, letting a worker do that and then transition back to full-time is much easier for an employer than firing that person for needing a bit of flexibility and saying we just can't give it to you, and then having to find someone brand new to retrain and again, get their productivity back up to where that person was. That's a lot more work. And so, again, flexibility right now seems to be the key for helping reduce burnout for workers right now.

Liz: I'm curious in this sort of loose-model flexibility, what it means for boundaries between work and life. Because we've already blurred those boundaries with so many people working in the home. Our work is literally coming to our physical homes. But what does it do sort of psychologically? How do we still maintain boundaries in some sense working under these conditions?

Caitlyn: Oh, I mean this is a question I ask myself every day because I struggle with these boundaries, right? The fact that I never leave my house.

Liz: Right.

Caitlyn: And I spend all day working and then I log off, and it's like I don't really — I don't have kids, so it's my partner and me at home all day every day. And it's very easy for me in the evenings to just pull out my phone, check my email, make sure I haven't missed anything. And one of my interviewees in the book I write talks about this. She calls it the swirl, she says she and her friends call this the swirl. It's the idea that work and family and home life are kind of blended together and inseparable. And she said sometimes I'm working, I pull out my phone because I realize I need to order some diapers. I open the Amazon app, I push order real quick and it's so nice to be able to knock out that to-do and just keep on with my day. The problem, of course, is that the swirl, I think, leads to burnout.

Liz: Yeah.

Caitlyn: Because you never feel like you're off duty.

Liz: What are some steps employers can take to reduce burnout right now? And are these measures different for working parents and workers without kids? Or are they initiatives that might benefit everybody and carry on into the future?

Caitlyn: Great question and I do think this can be sort of a universal design issue.

Liz: Yeah. I do too.

Caitlyn: I can think about this manifesting in all sorts of different ways. I know 1 employer who does not schedule meetings on Fridays. Meeting-free Fridays; I thought it's such a brilliant idea. Or we can go back to having calls that are not Zoom video calls. For example, we can pick up a phone to chat with people. I can tell you firsthand how much less stressed I feel about a potential work call when it's a phone call rather than a Zoom one. It's tiring.

Liz: Right.

Caitlyn: The sort of self-presentation that's required of being on video all the time is very tiring for workers.

Liz: Yep.

Caitlyn: If it's better for workers to sign off when their kiddo's elementary school Zoom is done at 2:30 every day and maybe they take care of that kiddo until dinner. If they have a partner, step in, maybe to help them out, and they can log back on and finish their work later in the evening after their kiddos have gone to bed. In a lot of circumstances in a lot of companies it doesn't really do much to impinge on the work that's getting done. It's going to be done before the next job day starts up.

And in my mind, giving workers that flexibility is absolutely key to reducing burnout right now. Because it, again, assists with burnout. And we know that that is key long-term to employee retention. And of course, their creativity and productivity on the job relies on their ability to show up every day rested and energized. And we can't do that when we spend all day every day working.

The remote work experiment

Liz: I'm curious about your thoughts on remote work. There's a lot of talk right now about remote work and what it means for the future of work. Is remote work the answer to work-life balance?

Caitlyn: I think it is a necessary component, but an insufficient solution to work-family balance. I think that flexibility itself is absolutely vital moving forward for all workers, those who have kids and those who don't. I think all of us need it. And so I think affording flexibility – and one part of flexibility can be remote work – is important in the long-term. And I think a lot of employers have realized that plenty of jobs can be done remotely that they didn't think were possible. I think that is very emancipatory for workers and really opens up creative potentials.

Liz: So 2020 is often discussed as sort of an impromptu experiment in working from home. Of course, this is only partially true because, as you said, we didn't choose it. We're working within significant constraints, extenuating circumstances, kids at home. Maybe we don't have a stand-alone office. Maybe we don't have a door and need a door. In my case, there is construction across the street. There are all of these different factors. And what would you say to employers about what we can and also cannot extrapolate from this so-called experiment?

Caitlyn: Oh my goodness; that's a really powerful question. I think one thing we can extrapolate is that workers have always needed flexibility. It has become more visible. It has become more obvious today. I think it will always be the case that workers need and deserve and value flexibility. So I don't think it is going anywhere. I think that the idea that your employees are available to work all the time is one coping tactic that employees have adopted because they really value their jobs right now. 

And especially in a recession where lots of folks are getting laid off, furloughed, laid off, fired in some cases; folks have really been sort of leaning into the work as a way to signal to their employers I am really needed here. Like you need me; please don't let me go, and that kind of extra leaning in on the part of employees, of course is not sustainable long-term. And I don't think it should be. I don't think we should expect workers to work around the clock and answer emails at all hours of the day and night. And I think we can't extrapolate that kind of level of commitment in unprecedented difficult times to normal everyday life. It's just not sustainable. And again, we all need a bit more boundaries.

Liz: Yeah.

Caitlyn: I think that has been, as you said, an experiment and having very few of them. And I think what we've seen is that it can be quite problematic for workers and honoring those external responsibilities in addition to employee's paid work really benefits them. And I do think that's a lesson we can extrapolate to after the pandemic as well.

Liz: Excellent, and I mean it's important to note that what we are all dealing with now will not last forever. The pandemic will not last forever. At some point companies that have struggled are going to come back. People are going to need workers again.

Caitlyn: Exactly. This is a short-term crisis. We need to treat it like that; which means if workers are going to unprecedented ends to try to get their job done day to day, then employers can meet them there by trying to help get them through this very difficult time. And in my way, this is mutually beneficial. To my way of thinking, this kind of employer-employee contract that means all of us are going through a hard time. Let's all try to support each other 'till we're on the other side. And of course continue supporting each other then seems to me incredibly valuable right now, of course both for workers and their managers.

Liz: I'm speaking with Dr. Caitlyn Collins, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Washington University in St. Louis. Dr. Collins is the author of Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving. And it has been such a pleasure speaking with you. Thank you.

Caitlyn: Thank you so much for having me on today.


Liz: I'm Liz Lewis. My thanks to our guest, Caitlyn, Collins, for sharing her insight on work and caregiving — and how and why employers can support workers navigating this balancing act. Thank you for listening. 

In the next episode, we'll meet Katrina Collier, talent expert and author of The Robot-Proof Recruiter. She'll discuss the skills recruiters need to stay relevant in an increasingly automated world, and share her strategy for nurturing the human side of talent. I hope you'll join me.

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