Kathleen Christensen

Women as Change Agents in America, Part II

VTR Date: March 4, 2005

Kathleen Christensen continues the discussion of the historical role of women.


GUEST: Kathleen Christensen, Ph.D.
VTR: 03/04/05

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this is the second of two programs on how women have become such important change agents in bringing about necessary flexibility in the work places of our new century.

My guest once again today is Dr. Kathleen Christensen, Program Director of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Workplace, Workforce and Working Families Initiatives.

But before we begin our conversation again … with more than a little help from my own working wife, I want to see if I really get the important points at issue here.

First, after the Industrial Revolution, as I understand it, the workplace really had been organized around a sexual division of labor. Men at work at outside the home; women at work inside the home.

But now an increasing number of women have also gone to work outside the home and though for some time they simply followed the male model and adapted somewhat to the way the workplace was organized; as more and more women began to have children while remaining in the world of work, conflicts have arisen between the structuring of that traditional workplace and the demands of family life.

This, in turn, has led an increasing number of women to leave the workforce, resulting on a burden on American business perhaps as great financially, and on our nation as great psychologically, as the cost perhaps of transforming the workplace to accommodate the needs of family life for both men and women. And I wonder whether this is “it”, this makes sense, have I “got” it?

CHRISTENSEN: Dick, you’ve “got” it. And I think that you have almost all of it, but not all of it.

HEFFNER: What’s the rest?

CHRISTENSEN: There is a profound mismatch between the structure of the workplace and the workforce and that has led some women to leave the workforce … not willingly and all of the research indicates that many of the women who are leaving and the ones who are leaving are, in fact, the privileged women, the women who can afford to leave. They want to come back in, they may want to be out for a year, two years … they don’t want to be out permanently. They want to come back in. They would like to come back in to the careers that they had. Obviously, not perhaps at the same level, but to be able to ramp back up to the same level.

The cost that the American economy is incurring, isn’t just, however, in terms of, of the women leaving the workplace, they’re incurring it in terms of … from what we can see … lost productivity. When people cannot devote their real attention to work because they’re distracted, because they are not … they’re not comfortable with the child care because they feel that they’re working too long of hours, because they’re taking too much work home; they’re not being able to give their full attention to their work. And that, that’s affecting both men and women; it’s not just affecting women.

And I think that’s the real issue, it’s that people are not having the control over their hours. They’re working very long hours and this is particularly a case for professionals … men and women … but particularly men … and this issue of overwork is a real issue now …so that we really have, have at heart now two problems.

We have a, a problem of overwork and we have a problem of lack of control over hours worked. And so that’s why we really need to, to seriously look at restructuring the workplace, so that people can have more control over their hours and they can reclaim … they can really reclaim their lives.

HEFFNER: The matter of overwork … I wonder if you’d just develop that a bit.

CHRISTENSEN: Right now, on average … and we can look at certain industries … let’s take “the academy” but this isn’t only … the university … faculty is working, on average, 55 hours a week. But in other industries, be it investment banking, law partnerships, the average number of hours is over 50 hours a week in those industries. 50, 60 hours a week.

So in certain professions and certain industries people are working very long hours and they don’t have control over those, those hours, there’s a real blurring of the boundaries between their work and their personal lives. And that’s particularly becoming problematic in a global economy when people are also having to work on, on schedules that are fitting other, other times in other parts of the world.

For example, if you’re, you’re in banking and you’re also having to work … if you’re in banking or investments, and you’re having to work in the Japanese stock market, as well as the US stock market … you may be taking calls at all hours of the day or night.

So there’s an issue of not only overwork, but the timing of your work so that you just … you’re not having this kind of defined time to when you work; it’s a real blurring as to when, when you have work and when you have any kind of personal life. And so people are feeling like they don’t have any control over their, over their lives and some research that we supported at the University of Chicago has found that the greatest stress that the people are incurring … that parents are incurring is, in fact, when they bring home between five and seven hours of work a week and when they work on weekends. And that’s when the stress occurs. It’s not when they’re working a 40 hour week. But it’s when they’re working this overtime during the week and when they’re working on weekends.

HEFFNER: Kathleen, is this peculiarly American?

CHRISTENSEN: Well, in terms of hours worked, the Americans are work … the United States citizenry, the United States workforce is working longer hours than any other nation, including the Japanese. Our closest counterparts have really been the Australians. But, but the long-hours culture is peculiarly the American culture.

HEFFNER: How do you explain that?

CHRISTENSEN: Well, I think that we’ve had a work culture that is very much premised on base time. That the notion has been that if you are physically present at work, you are being productive. And, and it’s what’s been rewarded. And, and that has very much been the entire culture of, of our work place. And although many progressive companies are, in fact, saying that what really matters is performance and trying to, to really drill down to how to, to define and to measure performance. In many workplaces the emphasis is still very much on, on being present.

HEFFNER: And “productivity” … when you … you said that about the Australians a moment ago and I remember visiting Australia with Elaine and feeling then, in, in the nineties … my gosh this was the United States in the 1950s, and I had the feeling … these are the same people … but a half century perhaps …


HEFFNER: … behind us. What’s so peculiar about them and us, why are we like that?

CHRISTENSEN: I, I am not enough of an anthropologist to know what really binds us together. We’re certainly both an immigrant culture and a striving culture. But there is no question that we bear many similarities and in terms of our work patterns we’re very similar.

HEFFNER: Well, you say …

CHRISTENSEN: But what is, what is different is that there are certain attitudes towards flexibility in Australia that we do not have in the United States. For example, women are guaranteed a year’s leave when they have children in Australia, which is not the case here in the United States.

There is a law called the … that basically is a caregiver’s law in Australia that we do not have in the United States … that, that in fact if someone is a primary care giver, under a law in, in one of the major provinces … they are, they are protected in terms of their requests for flexibility or for any kind of protection that they need in order to provide care to, to a family member. We don’t have that kind of law in the United States. So that they have, despite this work culture that’s comparable to ours, they have another culture that is more geared toward flexibility that we don’t yet have in our country.

HEFFNER: Is that a function of greater social consciousness? And involvement in a welfare state approach?

CHRISTENSEN: I think that’s partially it. I think it’s also that when they became engaged with these issues concerning working families, they tied them to affirmative action and, and … in a way that we did not in the United States … and so they, from the outset, tied them to some legal framework that had teeth.

And in the United States we didn’t … we tied our work/family, our benefits regarding working families to really a benefit approach in the private sector, where we said, “These are benefits. These are accommodations, they are negotiated on an individual basis.”

And I think that by taking that tack in the United States, were we said basically, if you are a working parent and you need some kind of, let’s say, flexibility, then, then you basically are asking for an accommodation …this is a nice thing that, that an employer is giving you; it’s a benefit we’re giving you. And I think that in the United States that, that kind of framing is really being changed right now.

I think that there is, there’s a realization that, for example, with flexibility, that it really is much more than an accommodation, it really is much greater than a benefit; that it really is a win-win strategy that can benefit the employer and can benefit the employee. And that to that end it can be a means to achieving the, the goals and the purposes of the employer. And it’s not just a “nice” thing to do for, for the employee.

So I think we are in the midst of a major sea change in this country in that employers are beginning to recognize that flexibility can, in fact, be a win-win and can help them achieve their own goals in a way that is a very different mindset than has been the case for the last 20 years.

HEFFNER: You say that employers are coming to realize that …


HEFFNER: … and you made that point last time …


HEFFNER: … while I was being pessimistic, you were being optimistic.


HEFFNER: And offering statistics to back-up your optimism. What as social policy rather than individual corporate or industry policy? You said something the last time at this table … our previous program, that I thought was so very, very interesting. You said, “Look, it’s been almost a 100 years, almost a century since we’ve really had a sea change in our attitudes toward the workplace,” and we had … and I guess you were saying we really needed leadership that was concerned with this issue and clearly Franklin Roosevelt … back in the 30s was very much interested in workplace matters. Where do we find that interest in the political community today?

CHRISTENSEN: Well, I would say if we look at the last Presidential election there was not … that George Bush did, in fact, address some of the issues with regard to working families in the context of a, a limited policy proposal which had to do with comp time … providing compensatory time instead of overtime payment, which is a proposal that has very different reactions.

HEFFNER: Let’s talk about that for a minute … what are the, what are the …

CHRISTENSEN: The Pros and the Cons?

HEFFNER: …opposing points of view?

CHRISTENSEN: That, that business and the govern … the Bush Administration feels right now that this is a way of providing the American employee with the means of, of having time … that, that if in fact they work extra time that they can make that up with compensatory time, instead of having overtime pay. The organized labor is very concerned that as to who will control that decision as to when that time, that compensatory time, can be used and that there is the potential for exploitation or abuse.

And so it’s at a real stalemate … nothing is being …there’s no real advance on, on this Bill right now. There were attempts to, to try and, and move it by, by moving it through regulations within the Department of Labor and that has not really advanced either.

There has been a policy within the Federal government regarding compensatory overtime for quite a while. And it has worked. But there is concern that if it moved within the private sector, that there could be potential for abuse.

But, the problem is … right now in, in Washington … there have been two major … two major proposals with regard to 2 different kinds of flexibility. One has been around leave policies and one has been around compensatory time. And there’s been major stalemates regarding each.

And I, and I think in our last conversation that I mentioned that we had …that Sloan has supported at Georgetown … Georgetown University Law Center, a major initiative headed by Hy Feldbloom called “Workplace 2010” that has, as its major goal, an attempt to try and break this stalemate, to try and find some common ground.

Because if you talk to the American public there is no question that what people are saying over and over and over again is that they want more control over their time. They want to reclaim their time. They want to spend time with their family.

And we’ve got to find a way, whether or not it’s starting from the grass roots, whether or not it’s breaking the stalemate in Washington and getting us out of just this highly polarized and, and partisan stalemate that exists, whether or not it’s through some leadership at the very top … we’ve got to find a way to really listen to the American public because they are saying we must have a way of, of reclaiming our time to spend it with our families.

HEFFNER: Yes, but Kathleen, we live in a time when you and I both know that public opinion can be manipulated so that … I mean we’ve developed the means through the 20th century so that now here in the 21st we can manufacture public opinion.


HEFFNER: What do you, as a student of this, matter want to see as a result of what you claim to be the public’s desire to have control over its time. What’s the price the public is willing to pay … what price do you think we who work should pay for that control?

CHRISTENSEN: Right. Well, I think the fact is is that there … first of all, what, what we believe very strongly is there’s ultimately got to be a partnership between voluntary private sector activity and some kind of, of public policy initiative. That, that no one side is going to do it … there, there can’t be just a public policy initiative and there just can’t be a private sector.

But I think that, that there is no … there is no one magic bullet; there isn’t one kind of … just as we now basically have a “one size fits all” workplace, which is, which is a 40 hour work week that is 52 weeks a year that has no guaranteed vacation, no guaranteed sick leave, that basically people get on a career path in their 20s and they get off in their 60s and very likely now are going to get off in their 70s. That “one size fits all” workplace just doesn’t fit the workers of today … we’re not going to solve it by creating another “one size fits all” workplace.

What we’re saying is we need a workplace that has many different sizes. And that, when we talk about flexibility, we’re not saying that there is one type of flexibility that’s going to fit everyone’s needs.

What, what our research … and when I say “research”, I’m saying for 10 years we have funded 200 and some projects and what that research that we have supported as well as others have supported shows is that probably what most people say they want and need … financially need … is to continue to work full time. Financially they need to work full time. But they would like to, to have more control over that time.

So what does that mean? What kind of flexibility could that be? That could be working on a full time basis, but having more control when you start your day or when you end your day. It could have … it could involve taking … having some possibility of taking time off in the middle of the day. Go to a doctor’s appointment; take your child to a doctor’s appointment; go to the school for an appointment; take your sick parent for an appointment; take the time to, to manage the elder care for, for your sick parent or your spouse by just arranging for care over the telephone.

It could be working what’s called a compressed work week … that maybe you work instead of, of a five day work week for two weeks, that you work five days one week and four days another week by working a 9 hour day as opposed to an 8 hour day. So you’re basically working, over two weeks a five/four schedule.

So that there are different arrangements where you could still continue working full time, but, but you could, in fact, by working a compressed work week, five days one week, four days another week, every two weeks have a three day weekend. So you, so you could reclaim some time.

There is a certain percentage, it could be anywhere from five to fifteen percent of the population at any point in time would like to work reduced hours. Now usually when we think reduced hours, we think of “well that’s part-time”. So you make work an 80% schedule, you work four days a week.

What we are hearing in our research is that a significant percentage of the population, if they want to work part time, want to work part year. They would like to, particularly for working parents … work a part year schedule, where they could work, you know, take … let’s say a 90% schedule and take four to five weeks off during the summer, so that they could have that block of time with their children.

That’s something that’s not really on the table in terms of what’s being discussed. But for many industries, let’s say accounting, when, when the summer is the low period, that cold be a win-win.

And then there’s another kind of flexibility, which is … goes to the point you started off with, Dick, which is women are dropping out. And that’s the career flexibility; the ability to take a leave from your career and then …and basically an exit and be able then to have an entry back into your career.

Right now most careers don’t allow that. So when we talk about flexibility, we’re really talking about this whole range of options so that the workplace doesn’t end up being just another “one size fits all”, but in fact a workplace that has many sizes that fits the wide array of workers across their life course. But none of this is going to work unless it’s really win-win. It’s going to have to meet the needs of the employer as well as the needs of the employee.

HEFFNER: And it certainly sounds as though what you said last time was correct, it’s going to need leadership.

CHRISTENSEN: It’s going absolutely to need leadership. And it’s going to need leadership at all levels. It’s going to need leadership within a firm. None of this is ever going to work unless there’s going to be leadership within a firm. And within a firm not only is it going to need leadership at the top, it’s going to need exemplars. It’s going to need people walking the talk. It’s going to need the people who are the executives within the firm working these flexible arrangements. And then it’s going to need the people at all levels actually being … feeling that they can take these and work these arrangements without fear. Without fear that they’re going to be penalized; that they’re not going to have career opportunities; that they’re not going to be paid disproportionately than others. So it … there’s going to have to be … you can change structure, but if you don’t change the culture, then it’s not … you really haven’t won the game.

So there’s going to need to be the changes within the individual firm. And then you’re absolutely right, there’s going to have to be political leadership; there’s going to have to be some far sighted visionary political leader who stands up to the plate and says, “You know, we really have an issue here with the American family and, you know, I really see that one way we’re going to address it, is really talk about changing the workplace.”

HEFFNER: Let me ask what I hope won’t seem to you to be a, a dirty question … a low blow question … but I wondered whether we’re talking about an elitist approach. Whether we’re talking mostly about people in the higher ranks, economically …


HEFFNER: … of our society.

CHRISTENSEN: I think it’s a very fair question. And I would say that … you know, first of all, I’ve been at this, this whole set of issues around working families for nearly 25 years. And I would say for probably the first 15 years that really … the whole issue of work and family and, and the need for flexibility was really, really did focus almost entirely on professional men and women. That’s not the case any more. And it never should have been the case.

HEFFNER: No, I know that.

CHRISTENSEN: But, but it really was. But it’s not and, you know, we have supported a whole series of demonstration projects in companies that, in fact, have historically had a lot of good programs on flexibility, but they were geared towards the, the real professionals. And now they’re really looking at those units within the companies that never were able to get the flexibility in place because they didn’t know how to do it, or it seemed too hard to do it … the mail room. Some of the information processing units the, the … really the more of what was considered the blue collar units.

We have another project on … in a packaging plant in … it’s really on the shop floor. So … so this is not going to work unless there’s flexibility across all income groups, unless flexibility is made available across all income groups; unless it’s across all different kinds of occupations.

And what the work is going to be a function of … what’s the nature of the job, and, and if the job can be designed to accommodate the flexibility. If people can be cross-trained. I mean one thing that we’re seeing as a result of flexibility being designed at the team level, not at the individual negotiating the arrangement as a private deal, but when the flexibility is negotiated at the team level, as people cross train each other, they have more trust, they feel more engaged; there’s greater performance.

And these are people who … these are often times teams in which there’s great turnover, but because they’re more engaged, they feel more … they feel that they have more autonomy; the turnover goes down. The paid time off goes down. The absenteeism goes down. And in fact, the jobs that had high turnover, that was costing the firm for constantly replacing them, is now, in fact … the company is, is really not incurring the costs that they did before. And these were units that were, in fact, you know, units that were more of your hourly wage worker … your non-exempt workers.

HEFFNER: It’s fascinating to me how often you’ve stressed the concept of autonomy …


HEFFNER: And that is the key, obviously, you feel to, to the demand here for change.

CHRISTENSEN: I think autonomy; I think trust; I think respect; I think engagement; I think this is what the American worker wants and I think that flexibility really embodies that. And I think that what happens is when, when we know that those are the ingredients for an effective workplace, I mean this is what another one of our major projects … has found and that when you have those ingredients and flexibility is the missing ingredient in that … when you have those, then you really have an effective work place.

HEFFNER: And I would bet that, as last time, and we’re at the end of our time, you remain very, very optimistic.

CHRISTENSEN: I remain very optimistic.

HEFFNER: I’m glad so, Dr. Christensen, thank you so much for joining me today on The Open Mind.

CHRISTENSEN: Thank you very much.

HEFFNER: And you’ve got to come back and report success.

CHRISTENSEN: I would very much like to.

HEFFNER: Thanks.


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.