Kathleen Christensen

Women as Change Agents in America, Part I

VTR Date: January 12, 2005

Kathleen Christensen discusses the role of women in society and its history.


GUEST: Kathleen Christensen, Ph.D.
VTR: 01/12/05

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And as I’ve indicated on the air every so often, I’m married to a very, very smart lady, who long ago pointed out to me how women in America act as incredibly important change agents in creating our national future.

And now, in taking note of a singularly significant research and policy focus of my friends at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, I realize how much women in particular have been powerful change agents in positing what must increasingly become the necessarily flexible workplaces of our new century.

Now, key to the Sloan Foundation’s workplace/workforce studies and the new flexibility Americans simply must embrace, is my guest today, Dr. Kathleen Christensen. For it is an address she gave on this subject to a Women and Business Conference in Salt Lake City in 2004 from which I would draw the substance of our conversation today.

And I would ask my guest first to elaborate on her insistence that today in America “The workplace is profoundly mismatched to the needs of its workers and their families and both are paying high prices for not having the flexibility they need and want.” What did you mean by that mouthful?

CHRISTENSEN: (Laughter) Well, first I’d like to say that I’m delighted to be here. The workplace as we know it today was really designed, Dick, to suit the needs of the male breadwinner. And…so to that extent the workplace was designed for workers who are working full time, full year, year in, year out without taking any time off for care-giving responsibilities.

And the career paths as we know them today really were designed to be really straight out career paths; you got on in your twenties, you started advancing, and you got off in your sixties and you retired. And that kind of workplace and those kinds of career paths really don’t fit the needs of our changing workforce, and particularly the needs of working parents. And especially working mothers, because today over … nearly 80% of all married couples are, in fact, dual earner couples.

And in many of these households they’re working over 80 hours of paid work. And there’s no one at home to really take care of the children, the house work, the cooking, the cleaning, and all the other jobs around the home. And so what people need are jobs that, in fact, are not necessarily all full-time, full year, year in/year out … they need jobs that offer more flexibility, more control over, over time. And so a workplace that’s highly rigid, highly structured does not fit the needs of, of couples and of families that are working flat out, but need to have more control and more flexibility in order to take care of their families and to take care of, of their children and of their homes.

And so, the prices that, that are being paid are multiple and they’re being paid across the board, by both men and women and at all ages.

Some of the research that we’ve supported over the last 10 years has shown, for example, that working mothers are not, for example, spending less time with their children than mothers who are not working for pay; but they are paying a price for working. And one of those prices is that they’re sleeping less. They’re losing almost a night’s worth of sleep a week because of doing the jobs of working at home, taking care of the family and the pay job.

We find that men, whose wives work 40 hours or more a week are in poorer health than men whose wives work shorter hours. And there are reasons for that. And it’s not so much that the wives are taking care of their husband’s health, it’s that the wives are often times the, the social organizers of the family’s social life. And, and when the wives are working so many hours, they’re not, they’re not organizing a social life. And the social life is often times the, the major factor in alleviating stress in, in the husband and in the couple.

HEFFNER: So the hip bone is connected to the thighbone.

CHRISTENSEN: Yes. Exactly. Exactly. We also see, and again, as I said, flexibility makes a difference across the life course, that men who retire abruptly after the age of 70 have many more health consequences than men who are able to phase into retirement.

So that the fact that this rigid work place is not fitting the needs of the workforce is showing itself in a variety of prices that people, men and women and at all ages and across all stages in their life, are, are experiencing. And the prices they’re incurring.

HEFFNER: But you know the question that occurs to me as you speak, is “who is it that has to be convinced?” I would think from what you say that the male and female workers, both are very much aware of these needs …

CHRISTENSEN: Right. Right.

HEFFNER: … the need for flexibility.


HEFFNER: Who needs to be convinced?

CHRISTENSEN: Right. Well, your point’s a good one. We, we have found in all of our survey work and others have seen, too, that 80% of American workers want flexibility. Only 28% have it. So, the major players that, that … who need to be convinced are employers. I would say the government, by providing more incentives to encourage employers to have flexibility. And, I think in some ways even employees who want flexibility need to be encouraged to, to negotiate it, to ask for it, to realize that this is something that they can have.

I think in many cases people are afraid of asking for it for fear that it could jeopardize their job, for fear that it could jeopardize their career potentials.

HEFFNER: Is there reality to that fear?

CHRISTENSEN: Well, again, in some of the research we have funded, we have seen, in fact, that women who have certain kinds of flexibility, part-time flexibility and tele-commuting flexibility where they work in their homes, and who stay with their same employer over seven years, do in fact have less of a wage growth than, in fact, those who have the same kind of flexibility and change employers or those who have different kinds of flexibility. So there is some kind of wage growth penalty. But that’s correctable. I mean once … I think people become aware that there is this penalty, that’s correctable.

HEFFNER: You say “correctable”. I would ask you another question … is it acceptable?

CHRISTENSEN: Well … I would say that …

HEFFNER: By the people involved?

CHRISTENSEN: No. No. It’s not acceptable. I mean you will … if you ask many … any woman … any man who’s working flexibly … and feels that they are working and producing the same quality of work and are not getting paid the same way or are not being offered the same kind of career opportunities, they will say it’s not acceptable, that they’re not being treated in the same fair and equitable fashion as someone who’s doing the same work, but doing it on a full-time basis.

HEFFNER: You know I remember back many years ago, the first book I ever read was “Looking Backwards” … Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel in which this kind of flexibility was described. Are we talking only about utopia here? Are we talking about something that’s achievable within the context of the America you and I know today?

CHRISTENSEN: I think it is achievable. And I think that it certainly has been achieved in many, in many firms. There are very … there are … I say, progressive in the sense that they are firms that have realized that it’s been in their best interests to offer flexibility.

IBM, Marriott, many of the large pharmaceutical companies have a long history of offering flexibility. And they have done it because it has suited their business interests. It has … it’s enhanced morale, it has increased retention, it has been an effective tool for recruitment, and so as a result, they have realized that this is really in their interest to, to offer flexibility.

We also are in the midst of sponsoring a number of demonstration projects with, with ten major US corporations and, and I will stress that this is in its preliminary stages. But the goal of the demonstration project is to tie flexibility with enhancing performance. And from some of the preliminary results we’ve seen, at least in, in one of the companies that I can speak about … performance has been enhanced by 5%. By providing employees with more flexibility and, and there are different forms of flexibility.

Flexibility is not cut of just one cloth. I mean there’s flexibility for full-time workers, so that they can continue to work full time and have a full-time wage or salary, but they can have more flexibility over the hours they work. So it could be flex time where they could have control over when they start their day and end their day … perhaps taking some time in the middle of their day, but still working a full schedule.

There is the flexibility that comes when there is the ability to, to shorten hours. And the typical kind is part-time work, part-time during the course of a week, but there’s also part-year work. Which isn’t very common in this country, but I think is, is something that’s really worth considering.

And then the third kind of flexibility, is in fact, career flexibility. Which is the ability to, to really have multiple points of entry and exit and re-entry for a career. Right now, in the last year there have been a number of major press articles about women dropping out. And I think those stories are really misguided.

HEFFNER: What do you mean, “misguided?”.

CHRISTENSEN: Because if you’d really talk to many of these women, they don’t want to drop out …

HEFFNER: Oh, I see.

CHRISTENSEN: … the story isn’t, you know, why are these women dropping out. It’s to where they’re dropping. They’re dropping into their homes, they want to be with their children for a while. But they really want, in most cases, to re-enter the work place. They would like to re-enter and have another, another shot at building their career again. But this notion of career flexibility is really going to require us to challenge our notion of careers.

Our notion of careers really are such that, it … it’s the sense that people have to start their careers in their twenties. But people are working, they’re living much longer, they’re working much longer, and every indication is that they’re going to work even longer over the next 20, 30 years. So why wouldn’t it be possible for some people, in fact, to, to delay even starting a career until their 30s or into their early 40s. They will still have up to a 30 year run in their career. So the notion of career flexibility is to re-think what has been a very rigid trajectory, an “up or out” trajectory that starts in your 20s and ends in your 60s.

HEFFNER: One thing about this disturbs me. I’m disturbed by the fact that I want to raise this issue because it would indicate, possibly, to someone watching a hostility on my part to it, which just isn’t there. Are we talking about major, big employers that are able, perhaps much better than small businesses to have this flexibility, to build in the various kinds of flexibility that you’re talking about.

CHRISTENSEN: It’s an excellent question and because of the fact that the companies that have gotten the most attention over the last 10 years, 15 years for their flexibility, have, in fact, been the large companies. We’ve been very concerned to really shine a light on what the smaller and the medium sized companies are also doing.

So in the last year we have funded an organization Family Center and Work Institute, based here in New York to work with an affiliate of the United States Chamber of Commerce, the Center for Workforce Preparation to establish a new award, the Sloan Award for Workplace Excellence in Flexibility.

And that award is now being rolled out in eight communities around the country. And that award will be given to those companies … small, medium, large and extra large … who, in fact, have really shown innovative, creative, exemplar practices regarding flexibility.

And the turnout at these Chamber of Commerce meetings around the country has just been phenomenal. There’s so much creative work being done in the small and medium sized companies and they don’t always call it flexibility because it’s like … flexibility … it’s like flexibility … it’s like a fish doesn’t know there’s water. It’s just … it’s the way they do business. It’s just … they’re small, they have to be nimble, they have to be agile, they have to be flexible. And, and it’s just … it’s the way … it’s the air they breathe, it’s the water they live in … it’s just the way they operate.

And, and they have come to these meetings, they’re excited to share what they’re doing, the applications for these awards have already begun … we’ve already started to have a terrific turn-out in applications; and we hope that in the coming years we will increase the number of cities in which we have these awards and that we can build this into a national award program.

HEFFNER: Well, now, one is tempted listening to you about “jack be nimble” … how quick is Jack … what are we talking about in terms of fundamental change over a significant area of American business life?

CHRISTENSEN: I would say our goal is to make flexibility the standard way of working in the United States. And we’re talking about a structural change in our country and I would say, being a real optimist, which I think I am, we’re really talking, at the bare minimum, ten years of really being able to see significant change.

HEFFNER: You are an optimist.

CHRISTENSEN: Yes. But I think what … but what I really believe is going to accelerate this, this change will be the growing alliance of the interest of older workers with the interests of working parents.

I would say over the last 15 to 20 years there has been a growing movement, pushing for flexibility that has really been led by working mothers. And I would say that working mothers, one by one, have been pushing for this.

And that, by now, there really … there are … there are changes that have occurred within the workplace. But I would say looking forward to the next 10 years as the Baby Boomers in this coming year are going to be reaching 60 … that we’re going to see that, that the aging of the American workforce is going to be a major factor in pushing flexibility.

We’re going to have this Baby Boom cohort which is demographically a huge cohort. It’s going to be, by its size, by its … just, it’s voice … by the fact that all indications are that they both need and want to continue working; that they need and want to, to work on a flexible basis and that’s what all the research is showing.

That they’re going to be a major factor in pushing flexibility. They’re going to be as much … it’s going to be as much men as women; it’s going to be people in positions of seniority; it’s going to be people with skills that companies are not going to want to lose because the replacement generation isn’t going to be the size of this retiring generation.

And I think that it’s going to be ultimately the marrying of the older workers with the working parents that will really push this issue of flexibility over the next 10 years.

HEFFNER: Well, I’m interested that in Working Mother, both you and Susan Berresford of the Ford Foundation indicate that working mothers have been in the vanguard, they’ve done it, but they’ve done it on a one-by-one individual basis.


HEFFNER: And now that’s not good enough for us.

CHRISTENSEN: It’s not good enough. No. I would say … you know, the fact is, is we have seen the problems that working mothers face, as private problems … as private, individual problems, that have required private, individual solutions. And its clear these are not private individual problems; these are structural problems. These are problems that have resulted because of the fact that the workplace as it’s designed just simply cannot and do not … these problems are a result of the fact that the workplace just cannot fit the needs of a changing workforce. And individuals can try and accommodate to that workplace. They can try and negotiate an individual schedule. But ultimately we have to recognize that what we have here is a structural problem and it’s going to require a structural solution.

HEFFNER: That means government, doesn’t it?

CHRISTENSEN: I think government will have a role to play. At the Sloan Foundation we feel that there are several critical players in this entire activity. One is … you know we’ve been talking about one of the most critical players is the employer. And we feel strongly that there is a significant and just an essential place for private, voluntary employer activity.

We also feel that there is a place for government … at the federal and at the state level to provide incentives for, for the private sector to, in fact, provide for more flexibility. Incentives or changes in regulations.

For example, recently the Treasury Department has proposed some changes in regulations whereby Defined Benefit Pension Plans would … the regulations regarding Defined Pension Benefit Plans would allow someone to draw on their pension, but at the same time begin to work part time as they reach retirement age.

That’s a significant change. Up to now if someone wanted to work part time they couldn’t supplement that part time income with the pension. If those regulations are approved, then that, that eliminates a significant legal barrier for many older people to be able to continue to work, but on a more reduced hours basis.

HEFFNER: Now you said before you’re a self-professed optimist.


HEFFNER: And I’m always the pessimist. Tell me what history indicates to us about such fundamental social, economic changes.


HEFFNER: What kinds …


HEFFNER: … of time …


HEFFNER: … you took ten years before.


HEFFNER: And that seems to me to be …

CHRISTENSEN: Yeah, significant. I, I would say not so much time, I would say players. I would say then probably the last major change we had with regard to employment law and structure in the workplace came in the thirties and that, that really came about because there were major players.

There was, you know, a leader … a President who wanted to see the change. There were unions who were representing workers. There was clearly a need among the workforce … we were coming out of a depression. The workforce desperately needed a minimum wage. And out of that, there was the birth of the Fair Labor Standards Act, in the late 1930s.

We have had those laws, those regulations … as laws as a result of the Fair Labor Standards Act have been in place since the late 1930s, we’re now at 2005. So, I’m not calling for a change in that, but I’m just saying that it’s been a long time that we have operated under one set of laws. And it’s now time to begin to think about other laws. In the last ten years other laws have been passed … we have the Family Medical Leave Act … President Bush has proposed the, the comp time bill. Other bills and other laws have been either proposed or have been implemented.

What … what we’re proposing is a more comprehensive plan. We have a center at Georgetown called Workplace Flexibility 2010 and their goal is to really have a national policy on workplace flexibility by 2010. It’s very optimistic. But the goal is to, in fact, have it be bi-partisan, to bring the players from across the aisle, to bring the different partners from business, from organized labor, from the different advocacy groups to the table to find some common ground.

That’s going to be extremely difficult in this current partisan climate in Washington.

HEFFNER: I would think it would be very, very difficult and I wonder whether one of the difficulties doesn’t have to do with the sense that this is … I talk, look back to Edward Bellamy, whether this isn’t social planning at its most extreme. Don’t you run into this problem?

CHRISTENSEN: Yeah. But … no, see, I don’t …because I don’t think we’re planning in the abstract. The, the anecdote I’m reminded about is … comes from Houston, Texas, when … I used to do a fair amount of consulting in Houston, Texas … and the thing that really struck me and this, this goes back to a long time ago …the thing that struck me is I saw all these pick-up trucks, pulling off the side of the highway. And there were no exit ramps … I mean they were just pulling off the side of the highway.

And I was baffled by this, and I said to someone who was a native Houstonian … I said, “what’s going on here”. Now this may be apocryphal, I don’t know … but this was the story I was told … I said, “What’s going on here?” and he said, “Well, you don’t seem to understand, once we’ve seen enough pick-up trucks pulled off the side of the road, that’s when we go in and lay the ramp.”

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

CHRISTENSEN: So, I think what we’ve seen here is … we’re seeing enough people having to negotiate these arrangements that the critical mass is beginning … we’ve got 28%, we know 80% that, they want flexibility. We’re seeing that critical mass really, you know, show their interest and act on that interest. And so I think that that … what the players are going to begin to put into place to, to codify, to legitimize what already is on the ground.

HEFFNER: Can you demonstrate that the bottom line – which is always the bottom line – is benefited?

CHRISTENSEN: Well, we, we can see in certain areas definitely. We see that, that workers who have flexibility are more satisfied, they’re more committed, that firms certainly don’t lose the return on investment because the workers who have flexibility have greater retention rates. That companies, in fact, can more effectively recruit.

We see in, in some companies that they, in fact, are able to, to compete more effectively for a talent pool, by using flexibility when they can’t compete on wages. We know, to give you an anecdote … not anecdote, but to give you an example of this, we know, for example, that when companies offer part-time, as a way for new mothers to phase back in after maternity leave, their retention rates go up substantially. That means that companies who have invested in this woman for x number of years, will not have lost their investment in this person.

And that, that phase-in on a part-time basis may be for six months, may be for a year. But by making that investment in a relatively short time, they are not going to lose the investment they made in that person, they are not going to incur the costs that they will have otherwise incurred by going out and recruiting someone new and, and training someone new.

So, we do know those factors. We also, as I’ve mentioned have this other effort underway to actually document the productivity or the performance improvement that can come about as a result of, of flexibility. Those are still too early to be able to really publicly talk about, but we hope to be able, in perhaps some other time, come back and really talk more about those.

HEFFNER: Indeed, Dr. Christensen, our time is up. But I hope you do come back, I hope that we can talk about this. Obviously this is a massive social change that you’re talking about. An incredible change. I hope it comes about.

CHRISTENSEN: Thank you. I do, too.

HEFFNER: Thank you for joining me today.

CHRISTENSEN: Thank you very much.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.