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is it discrimination that all the moms in the company have to have childcare but the one dad doesn’t? — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

Over the past few months, I’ve found myself increasingly frustrated and resentful, and I fear it’s clouding my judgment. Any advice, even if it’s simply to let go, would be appreciated.

I work for a nonprofit that operates across several states. We have a predominantly female workforce, many of whom are mothers with young children. During the pandemic, our organization was extremely flexible in terms of work schedules and remote work, especially for parents managing childcare. However, once child vaccines became widely available, the organization implemented a remote work policy that required full-time childcare during work hours. While there are still allowances for occasional childcare-related work-from-home days, the general rule is that you can’t be the sole caregiver for your children while working.

Overall, the policy has been adhered to, and most employees have found suitable childcare arrangements. However, there’s one exception: a senior manager with a significant portion of the organization reporting to him. During the pandemic, he was allowed to care for his children after school without formal childcare arrangements. When the new policy came into effect, he requested and was granted continued flexibility, which wasn’t communicated to the rest of the organization as an option. It’s been explained that he makes up for missed meetings by working in the evenings and adjusting his schedule, although I haven’t experienced that happening in practice.

While this arrangement may work for him, it’s causing disruptions for the rest of us. We struggle to schedule meetings with colleagues across different time zones because he’s unavailable for half the day. Additionally, his engagement during meetings suffers when he’s multitasking with childcare responsibilities, and he often goes unresponsive after his pick-up time and never replies in the evenings even though he’s supposed to be flexing his time. This situation has led to increased workload for others and has raised questions of fairness, especially when considering the financial burden of childcare that many of us are bearing. I also question if it’s discriminatory to hold all the female staff to the policy and grant the exception to a male staff member only. Additionally, there’s a safety concern that makes me extremely uncomfortable. He frequently takes work calls or communicates on slack while driving his children home, a commute that spans about 1.5 – 2 hours due to living in one metro area and having his kids attend school in another. It’s evident that his attention is divided during these calls, and given the importance of safety while driving, I question whether this should be allowed. I think it has only been given the okay because otherwise he would be completely out of contact for a huge amount of time each day.

I’ve raised these concerns with his manager and my own, but it seems there’s little willingness or ability to address the issue due to the previously granted exception. I’ve also discussed this with several female colleagues who are in a similar situation, and we share a sense of resentment and frustration.

I’m considering reaching out to HR about this but would appreciate guidance on how to approach the conversation. Should I request a similar exception to avoid feeling unequal, or should I focus on the impact this situation is having on our work and propose solutions?

It could be a gender discrimination issue, but it’s also possible (and your company would likely say) that he’s been granted an exception because of seniority and the nature of his role. They’re allowed to give different perks and different privileges to different classes of employees, such as management above a certain level, etc. Of course, if any moms at his level have requested and been denied the same accommodation, that would change things.

It is weird that they’re saying “we already approved this and thus can never walk it back in the future, no matter how poorly it’s working.” They absolutely could say to him “This isn’t working for X reasons and we need to either modify it in Y ways or we need you to find childcare by (date).” That happens all the time. The fact that it isn’t happening here says that either his manager (a) is too weak to deal with it or (b) has decided that they’re willing to pay this as the price of keeping this senior manager.

If it’s (b), HR probably isn’t going to overrule that.

That said, you could try! There’s no reason you can’t share with HR what you’ve shared here, and say that at a minimum the gender optics are terrible. Who knows, something might come of that.

You’re likely to have more luck addressing it from that angle than by advocating for a similar exception for yourself and others. His exception is working so poorly that it’s a pretty strong argument against letting more people do it. And “you can’t care for young children while also working” is a very common — and very reasonable — policy that most companies have. The issue is that he’s not holding up his end of things — but if his management doesn’t care, that might be the end of it.

It’s reasonable to raise the work impacts and the optics and see what happens, though.

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