These pressures aren’t just bad for parents; they’re bad for employers. Inflexibility around child care is, quite simply, going to cost firms valuable workers. Most of the women in that study left the labor force. Other research has found that “the presence of children” is a main driver of the gender gap in career outcomes, even for highly educated workers, because women drop out when their employer can’t accommodate their schedule.
If a workplace doesn’t offer paid parental leave, the solution, though possibly difficult to achieve on a political level, is obvious: paid parental leave. The climate issues that lead to secret parenting are more nebulous, and thus seem more difficult to fix. But perhaps the answer is just as clear. Fight the culture that encourages secret parenting by … not parenting secretly. Eventually, your colleagues will adapt.
Read: Why American moms can’t get enough expert parenting advice
This change cannot come from the lowest rungs of the organization. More senior employees must take the lead. Two kids in, I’m now a tenured full professor. I am on the other side, so to speak. But my kids are still young—4 and 8—and I value seeing them every day for dinner; I do not like to travel much. Not too long ago, I would have explained away my time constraints with other obligations or been vague about them.
But I try consciously not to do that now. I tell people, “I’m sorry, I do not do meetings after 5 p.m., because of my children.” Or even, “Sorry, but today I’m leaving at 3:30 because I’ve been traveling a lot and I promised my kids I’d come home early to make cookies.” And I particularly try to say things like that around more junior colleagues, those who might wonder whether it is okay for them to have these constraints. I have pictures of my kids up everywhere, and right now I’m looking at a child’s mitten, which has been sitting on my desk since sometime in December. One glance around my office, and you’d know I’m a parent.
Nor can women, even senior women, change the tenor of their workplaces alone. Men have to do it also. Parenting is not a mom-only activity. Men also want to see their kids, to be there for dinner, for bedtime.
Once parents start acknowledging their child-care obligations openly, the need for specific changes may become apparent. For example, little kids go to sleep early. The hours between, say, 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. are really central for parents. What if they spoke up about that more? Employers might then see the benefit of making clear to parents that they needn’t fulfill their work obligations within the confines of a traditional day. Many of us would be happy to log on before our kids are up or after they are in bed. For me, a phone call at 8:15 p.m. is infinitely better than a meeting at 6 p.m. Openness about, say, sickness would also force employers to confront that even the best-laid child-care plans break down. Parents should have the flexibility to (occasionally) have a kid in their office or, better yet, be given access to emergency child care.
Put simply, mothers and fathers ought to come clean about the nature of their lives. We can’t fix problems that we pretend don’t exist; we can’t improve the lot of parents at work if we pretend we aren’t parents.