The Women@Work column appears weekly in The Globe and Mail.
It’s arguable who takes more delight in seeing this school year end: my son or me. As the weeks toward the summer break drew closer, our school routine began to fall apart. Any imagination I once brought to lunches disappeared along with the cold weather. The same applied to my oversight of homework. I even forgot about an erratically placed early closing day, prompting a call from school — not a proud moment for any parent. These issues disappear in the summertime with his longer camp hours.
So when a heated debate on women and work erupted last week in the media, prompted by Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece in the Atlantic, one line really caught my attention: “Make school schedules match work schedules.” Ms. Slaughter explained in “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” that a career in academia, although demanding, afforded her the opportunity to set her own schedule. When she moved to her dream job as director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department, the first woman to hold that role, she experienced what many of us already know: being at the mercy of someone else’s work schedule as a parent raises many complications, some of them insurmountable. The overall tone of the article suggests that society needs to change to accommodate women’s advancement but to what degree does that include our school system?
School schedules reflect an outdated agrarian society, the piece noted, or at least one in which stay-at home mothers were the norm. That model no longer exists, certainly not in downtown Toronto where I reside. The discussion about extending school hours remains ongoing in the U.S., where President Barack Obama endorsed the idea, which will materialize this fall for many Chicago students. In the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron launched a commission that will in part explore the idea of extending school hours.
For the many working parents I know, traditional school hours mean constructing a duct-tape solution of nannies, costly after school programs and the support of friends and family. When one peg in the intricate wheel of child management comes loose, it wreaks havoc.
Even during school hours, regular parents participation remains expected.
“I often feel that the school system still believes that every mother is a stay-at-home mom,” observed Cheryl Kim, an account director with Edelman Public Relations in Toronto and the mother of 10-year old twins.
“It shows in the short notice that we receive about special assemblies, the timing of school events in the middle of the day, the way kids are asked to wear a special colour of shirt the very next day, inevitably the colour my kid doesn’t have,” she lamented. Ms. Kim stayed home with her children until they reached grade 1 and loved volunteering at the school. While she believes its great that parents are made to feel welcome in schools, children translate invitations to parents to participate in school events as expected, which can result in disappointment. Extending school hours certainly carries a cost not only to taxpayers but teachers.
But the discussion may give rise to alternative solutions to help parents manage their multiple obligations. Academic experts can decide how to creatively spend the extra time, which need not be focused on straight out instruction. I would even take delight in an additional half hour of recess to break up the day.
Admittedly, finding school hours that sync with the modern workforce will only become more challenging, with parents working a variety of shifts, including weekends. “The reality is that many parents do not work the traditional 9-5 and no matter the hours of school, arranging child care is a challenge,” said Kelly Ann Heaney, an Ontario teacher and the mother of four boys.
Even if schools offered extended hours, there is a chance the approach could backfire, leading to further work-life balance issues. Dr. Julia Richardson, an associate professor of organizational behavior at York University’s School of Human Resource Management compares it to Sunday shopping. Although stores stay open longer, allowing more flexible shopping time, the hours impact families.
“In the ‘old days’ when shops were closed on a Sunday, it was far easier, I would argue, for families,” observed Dr. Richardson, adding that women are more likely to be in retail jobs and teaching jobs for that matter. She recounts a recent trip to New Zealand, where stores closed around 6 p.m. except for one night of late shopping a week.
“It was amazing, speaking to women working in those stores how much better they coped,” explained Dr. Richardson. “I told them about shops being opened in Canada till say 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. five nights a week and they said they wouldn’t be able to cope with the demands on their family,” she added.