May 19, 2009
"Family-Friendly" Workplace Policies: Opt-in v. Opt-out
Posted by Christine Hurt

Here at the Glom, we often post on topics such as women in the legal profession and working parents.  As a group, we are fairly qualified:  together we have 12 children, dual-career couples, including academic couples, spouses (both wives and husbands) that have stayed at home, maternity leaves and non-maternity leaves, daycare issues, nanny issues, you name it.

In April, I had the great opportunity to attend a Roundtable on Promissory Obligations sponsored by the University of Illinois Program in Law and Philosophy in Galena, Illinois, which is 4-5 hours away from Champaign.  The substance of the roundtable was fascinating and very thought-provoking.  However, the fact that I was even there was even more incredible.  The roundtable organizer, Heidi Hurd, my colleague and former dean, had done something amazing -- she had provided childcare for the conference attendees.  This allowed both my (law professor) husband and I to attend, as well as two other academic couples.  So, while we were debating aspects of the theories of promising, two childcare workers were taking seven children to the playground, pool, lunch, etc.  We were able to participate in conference dinners, and on the last night, the children put on a talent show.  Most importantly, I was able to meet very interesting people from both law schools and philosophy departments and gather ideas for my own research, without bearing the expense of finding an individual to watch our children at home or prevailing upon a relative to come to our home, both of which we have done in the past.

So this got me thinking about "family-friendly" workplace policies.  Most of the time, the policies that are proposed allow parents to "opt-out" of certain work obligations, temporarily or permanently:  maternity/paternity leave, part-time options, telecommuting.  However, I don't want to opt out.  I want to opt in and participate in my chosen career to the fullest.  Yes, you may be saying, you can do that -- by not having children and devoting yourself to your career.  But I am selfish -- I want the best of both worlds!  That's why I love opportunities to integrate my two worlds fully, without leaving one behind.  I suppose that on-site daycare is the obvious "opt-in" policy, but there are smaller steps also.

When I had my third baby in the Fall of 2007, I realized that I traveled to do workshops and attend conferences more than I had realized.  I did not want, however, to be excused from continuing to do this.  I didn't want people in my field to say, "Oh, right.  We haven't seen Christine much this year because she had a baby," even if they thought this was a perfectly valid reason to stay closer to home.  I wanted to participate -- to opt in.  So, I brought my baby and my mom to conferences.  I know of one rock star female law professor who really wanted to take part in a high-profile colloquium, but couldn't leave her young, still nursing baby.  So, the organizer threw in a plane ticket for the husband and baby to come, too.  A $300 fix to what seemed like an insurmountable problem.  I hope that we continue the search for great family friendly policies, but that we are aware unlike the possible isolating tendencies of "opt-out" polices, "opt-in" policies may be better for everyone involved.

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