Toward Family Friendliness

Corporations (Reluctantly) Discover that Supporting the Family Benefits Everyone

Allyson Felix famously became the most decorated American track and field star in history at the Tokyo Olympics this year. At 35 years old, Felix holds an astonishing 11 Olympic medals, 7 of which are gold. What made almost as many headlines was her homecoming. Upon walking in the door of her home, Felix was greeted excitedly by her two-and-a-half year-old daughter, Cammy. Tokyo was Felix’s fifth Olympics, but her first as a mother.

Felix is at the top of her game now, but just a few short years ago, she wasn’t sure she’d be able to continue in the sport she loved. After she narrowly lost in Rio, her sponsor, Nike, tried to renegotiate her contract—at a rate 70% less than what she had previously made. For Felix and her family, this news was devastating. But it became even more complicated when Felix became pregnant. With negotiations with Nike already going poorly, Felix hid her pregnancy for several months, training by herself in the early morning so no one could see her growing stomach. Finally, she asked Nike to guarantee that she wouldn’t face financial penalty if she didn’t perform at her best level in the months surrounding pregnancy and childbirth. Nike refused, and Felix told her story in the pages of the New York Times.

Two other female track-and-field athletes, Olympians Alysia Montaño and Kara Goucher, also came forth around the same time, detailing their own disappointing experiences with the mega-brand. Goucher told the Times that the most difficult moment of motherhood had been when Nike told her that payment would stop until she resumed running. She was already pregnant at the time, so she scheduled a half marathon for three months after her son was to be born. Then, during her training for the race that she hoped would restart her pay, her son became ill and required hospitalization. “I felt like I had to leave him in the hospital, just to get out there and run, instead of being with him like a normal mom would,” Goucher told the New York Times. “I’ll never forgive myself for that.” Montaño, also known as the “pregnant runner” for racing while very visibly eight months pregnant, said she had to fight to keep her contract.

Allyson Felix wrote in her New York Times op-ed that one of the reasons she had originally signed with Nike was because of its programs empowering adolescent girls around the globe. “By joining Nike,” she was told, “I could help empower women.” But while Nike and other athletics companies were quick to jump on the bandwagon of empowering female athletes, they preferred those athletes a certain way—unpregnant. Supporting the same athletes during their pregnancies, childbirth, and postpartum wasn’t something anyone had apparently signed on for. Soon after the New York Times op-eds, Nike and a number of high-impact brands changed their policies to guarantee women maternity protection for a number of months both during and after a pregnancy. But Felix—and several her fellow runners—had already left for more women-friendly brands.

Nike and other mega-brands have been both criticized for their failure to support pregnant female athletes and new mothers, and praised when they finally did come around. Such moves are empowering to women, the argument goes, allowing them to remain in professions they love while also raising families of their own. Critics, on the other hand (and there aren’t very many of them), ask why Nike should have to subsidize women while they’re pregnant and nursing young children. Why do women get to hammer on for equal treatment, when men decidedly don’t get this particular treatment?

I’m going to suggest an alternative paradigm for viewing things like Felix’s request for payment protection and other forms of maternity leave. Such policies are good not just for women, but for men, too.  The workplace as it has historically been structured is not a humane, family-friendly place. Perhaps one of the greatest tragedies of the Industrial Revolution is that it tore families apart. Whereas before, husband and wife, son and daughter worked side-by-side in common household tasks or trades, now they all went their separate ways, working grueling hours for money—itself an abstraction. Labor laws and unions did what they could to put to right some basic working conditions and guarantee safe conditions, but the ultimate fact remained: the family no longer worked together. Work was something that competed with family for the individual’s attention.

But women’s entry into the workforce has had some profound impacts upon how individual workplaces approach family life. As early as 1919, some workplaces began guaranteeing twelve weeks of paid maternity leave, job protection for childbearing women, and even free medical care. Decades later, in 1969, teacher Gary Ackerman made waves when he sought (unpaid) leave for the birth of his daughter. His application was denied, and he and his wife filed a complaint with the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and sued the education board, arguing that “granting child-care leaves only to women is an invasion of privacy because it forces mothers to be housekeepers and child rearers and prevents husbands and wives from dividing up family responsibilities as they see fit.” Paternity leave is still much more rare (particularly in the U.S.), but before Ackerman, it was unheard of.

Workplaces now tend to be even more accommodating to families. Paid family leave for both men and women, flexible work hours, on-site childcare, and other perks are among the programs that larger corporations offer to support families. The work world has come to recognize that in supporting employees’ families, they also gain a more loyal, productive, and happy worker. It’s not just women who benefit from these things. The entry of women, en masse, into the workforce began to make the world of work more accommodating for men, women, and the children they were raising.

Female athletes like Allyson Felix are now succeeding in making the high-stakes, high-pressure world of professional athletics more family-friendly. For this, they should be applauded. Let us hope that someday, perhaps years from now, a male athlete may also gain the privilege of stepping back from his high-pressure sport to support his pregnant wife or bond with his new child. Let us work toward a world that encourages parents to step up for their children, instead of devaluing the work of parenthood.

is the managing editor of The Natural Family, the quarterly publication of the International Organization for the Family.

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