Experiences from two DC-based Thinktankers: Women-led Organisations and the Critical Importance of Recognising Care Work

25 May 2015
SERIES Women in think tanks 11 items

[Editor’s note: This is the fourth post from the series on Women in Think Tanks, edited by Meghan Froehner. This post was written by Meghan, based on interviews with Claudia Williams, of the Washington Area Women’s Foundation, and Tiffany Boiman, of the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor.]

The thinktankers

For our fourth contributor post (fourth in the series), DC-based researchers were interviewed about their experience working in think tanks. Claudia Williams of the Washington Area Women’s Foundation has worked in Washington, DC for over 8 years, most of which with a think tank working on women’s policy. Tiffany Boiman*, currently with the Women’s Bureau at the U.S. Department of Labour, has also spent several years working at DC based think tanks in addition to other research-based work. 

Both Williams and Boiman have spent the majority of their careers working in women-led organisations that also focused primarily on research and policy from a gender perspective. This background gives them a unique perspective on the role of women in think tanks and provides an insight into how women-led think tanks may differ.

Throughout my discussions with Boiman and Williams, they both consistently cited having the flexibility to balance care responsibilities with paid work as a major determinant of how gender plays out in the work place. Other important themes that the researchers addressed were the role of mentorship and supports for junior and mid-level women and unconscious bias both from individuals and internalised into workplace policies.

Care as a recurring theme

A major theme in the interviews (and in the commentary of nearly all of this series’ contributors) is how workers navigate balancing care work with professional work hours and commitments. Although there are important gender issues, like discrimination, that affect all women in the work place, succeeding at work is particularly challenging for women with care responsibilities.

Tiffany Boiman pointed to how care responsibilities fall disproportionately on women, not only for children but also for sick or elderly relatives. Time use studies for the United States show that women are still spending 75% more time carrying out child care and housework activities than men, with men on average working more, but among non-employed individuals women were also doing significantly more housework and childcare. Because of these trends, we see that the burden of care responsibility, although also relevant for men, is an issue that affects women disproportionately and as such is central to our discussion on women in think tanks.

As a parent of two small children, Boiman was able to comment on her personal experience of balancing care work with her career. Having young children, or other care responsibilities like a sick relative or aging parent, is a critical time in many women’s careers when they are forced to make tough decisions that can have implications on their career trajectory and income for decades to come. Boiman cited her ability to take on part-time work that offered the option for telework as critical to her ability to stay in the work force while also being able to provide care for her children.

Being able to engage in part-time flexible work was a way to stay connected to the workforce and avoid sliding backwards after many years of education and career progression. For Boiman, working at a women’s policy organisation likely made negotiating flexible work preferences easier than in other contexts. Although she was able to exercise options for flexible work arrangements and experienced receptivity in structuring her schedule around her need to carry out care responsibilities, she pointed out that it was an arrangement and work environment she sought out diligently and that that type of flexibility is hard to access in many organisations. Citing a Pew study that reveals 71% of mothers are engaged in the labour force and 40% of households with children are primarily supported by a women worker, Boiman pointed to the need for a serious recognition of the prevalence and importance of women workers and how they support their families, financially, emotionally, and otherwise. If American policy makers are serious about improving the lives and well-being of children and families, supports for working mothers are a critical piece of that puzzle.

Another common phenomena that Boiman mentioned, which can serve as a barrier for women successfully taking leave and flex-work and returning after, is the differentiated perceptions of men and women when they take time out for care work. She cited a study by Michelle Budig, which showed that women could suffer a 4% decrease in their earnings for each child they have, while men stand to gain a 6% salary increase by becoming fathers.

The study attributed much of the difference to cultural bias, as work hours could only explain a marginal portion of the difference, and is underlined by the 2014 study by Munch, Ridgeway, and Williams that shows men who request flex-time are not only granted it at significantly higher rates, but are also viewed more favourably as a result. In contrast, women’s requests resulted in them being viewed as less committed to work and generally less likeable.

This indicates that workplace policies, although highly important, are not sufficient in significantly reducing gender barriers in the workplace. A combination of non-discrimination policies and gender-sensitisation, like training managers and leaders to recognise unconscious bias, are essential in achieving better gender parity.

Women-led organisations

The consensus between the two interviewees was that women-led organisations generally opened up more opportunities for women to advance and were generally better about recognising employees as more complete individuals that might have care responsibilities. Their experience with women-focused organisations was that there was a desire to ‘walk the walk’ if they were ‘talking the talking’, in other words maintain consistency with the research goals and policy recommendations that they were promoting.

However, an important note is that being women-led is not a silver bullet. Women-led organisations were often more sensitive to care-givers’ flexibility needs as their leaders may have personal experiences that make them sensitive to gender-differentiated needs for women. Yet, it is essential to recognise that it is the characteristics and practices of the women in positions of leadership, rather than the simple fact of being a woman, that makes the greatest differences. Simply said, women can also fail to recognise gendered barriers and reproduce discriminative practice while men can also practice gender sensitivity in their management style. The key is to examine women leaders who are fostering diverse staffs and identify key practices that are assuring women’s presence is being seen and heard.

Williams hypothesised that women-focused organisations, like those she’s worked at, tend to be less hierarchical as a result of their social justice focus and as such leave more spaces for junior and mid-level employees to contribute to and be recognised within their organisations. This is significant because one of the reason women do not advance to leadership roles at the same rates as men is because they sometimes find themselves either without the skills or confidence to speak in formal spaces or when they do posses these abilities they are not given space and their input is overlooked, often times unconsciously, and sometimes by both men and women colleagues.

Mentoring and workplace supports

Claudia Williams felt that a key component for helping women succeed in think tanks is mentorship, support, and feedback for junior and mid-level associates. Although great for staff development in general, this kind of support can be critical for women who might feel less confident and who have the pressure of carefully navigating how they present themselves in professional spaces.

Williams highlighted regular check-ins and communication with supervisors as critical to her work experience. Maintaining open lines of communication with supervisors has helped her feel supported in project decisions and maintain continuity in their team.

Her current organisation, although not a think tank, gives a great example of how the work-life balance critical for workers with care responsibilities is incorporated into the way they manage projects and work loads. The organisation takes an active role in encouraging healthy work-life balance, using check-ins as a means to ensure projects are on schedule and employees have the resources to complete their work within office hours. When projects run behind and staff has to work late nights and weekends to make a deadline, reflection on how and why the project could not be completed within office hours is encouraged as well as better planning to prevent project run-over in the future.

Maintaining this kind of discipline in scheduling projects and completing them within a 40-hour workweek can be challenging in a field where organisations often rely on project-based funding to finance employees’ salaries. Organisations can find themselves in a position of mounting project deadlines with stretched budgets and little money left for overhead, employee benefits, and staff development. Further investigation into strategies for think tanks to avoid overcommitting to project loads while maintaining sufficient budgets would be positive change for all workers, but with particularly large potential benefits for those with care responsibilities.

Towards improved gender equity in think tanks

An important takeaway from the feedback from Claudia Williams and Tiffany Boiman is that the workplace environment and gender-sensitised leadership are essential components in creating equal opportunity in think tanks for women.

The analysis of women-led organisations is significant in that it touches on both of these themes. Women leaders often exhibit gender-sensitised behaviour and women-focused organisation shows tendencies towards less hierarchical forms of organisation that create spaces for junior and mid-level associates to participate actively and feel valued within their organisations.

These types of workplace dynamics coupled with a recognition of workers’ care responsibilities were highlighted as key interventions by the interviewees to achieving more gender-equitable workplaces in think tanks.

Next week: Cynthia Sanborn explores the role of women in think tanks in the Peruvian context and draws on interview feedback from researchers working in Lima.

* The views expressed in this post are of Tiffany Boiman alone and do not represent formal positions of the U.S. Department of Labor.