Article 3

2023-05-22 Stefano Basaglia

Work, Private Life, and Parenthood: A Paradigm Shift is Urgently Needed

Beyond the formal declarations of companies and the gradual spread of more agile models, the problems related to the conflict between work and private life remain numerous. Just as numerous changes are necessary to address the issue adequately. While some changes concern companies (reduction of workload, increase in workforce, adoption of flexible space-time solutions), others concern individuals and society. Above all, there is a need to no longer perceive women solely as mothers or solely responsible for all caregiving activities for others.


Kramer vs. Kramer, a film from 1979 based on the novel of the same name from 1971, helps us understand the fundamental issue of the relationship between work and private life. Joanna Kramer decides to leave her husband, Ted Kramer, a manager at an advertising agency, and their seven-year-old son, Billy. This event disrupts Ted's life, as he directly experiences the conflict between work, which demands constant presence from the agency he works for and his clients, and his private life, specifically taking care of his son Billy, such as taking him to school, being with him when he's sick, preparing dinner for him, and so on. This conflict "distracts" Ted from his work, and the agency decides to fire him. This is where the problem of the conflict between work, private life, and parenthood lies.


Fifty years later, the problems related to the conflict between work and private life remain the same. This is not good news. Companies, beyond formal declarations, desire to have full control over their workers' time, whatever their role and/or level. According to a survey conducted by the Diversity Management Lab at SDA Bocconi, individuals without children are perceived to have a higher likelihood of promotion compared to individuals with children (with a stronger effect for women compared to men).[1]


From this perspective, the space-time flexibility inherent in smart and/or hybrid work can be only a partial solution because while it solves the problem of space, it does not resolve the issue of time, and can even exacerbate potential conflicts. A more effective solution could be to increase the number of workers, distributing the workload among more people. The presence of a reduced staff is a source not only of conflict between work and private life for individual workers but also of conflicts among workers, because if one worker is absent due to personal and/or family matters, their workload falls on the shoulders of others, increasing conflicts among colleagues. From this perspective, even the concept of "shared leave" so often publicized by the media represents a way to "dump" the burden of assistance from the company onto individual workers. These aspects may contribute to the stigmatization of individuals who have to care for their family members (children and/or elderly parents and/or spouses/partners) and/or are ill. However, there are professions or occupations where an individual worker acquires such a critical and specific role due to their knowledge of a certain context, that it is not easy to replace them. For these occupations/professions, increasing the number of people available may not be an immediate solution. In such cases, alongside increasing personnel, a teamwork approach must be implemented to make the presence of a single individual less critical.


Lastly, it is important, if we want to make the world of work more equal and inclusive, for everyone to abandon certain "myths." One of these is the tendency to equate the role of women with that of mothers and to associate caregiving activities (for children and/or others) solely with women. In this regard, a recent decision by an Italian court is useful in highlighting this aspect. We should note that in discussing this case, we rely on the information made available through the media by the parties involved. An attorney requested the court to reschedule a hearing due to legitimate impediment because she had to be at the hospital with her child. The court panel rejected the request, stating that the child could have been accompanied to the hospital by the father. This decision was heavily criticized by the attorney, the bar association, and all the media outlets. [2] In reality, with its decision, the court panel began to challenge the notion of motherhood and brought the concept of parenthood to the forefront. In the case of heterosexual families, caregiving responsibilities do not necessarily have to be solely the mother's responsibility. If we do not break away from this automatic association, achieving equality between men and women will be very difficult. In some cases, protections and safeguards designed for only one category reinforce exclusion. In the workplace, we must start thinking that both men and women have the same need for balancing work and private life, and within families, all activities—work, caregiving, leisure, etc.—should be divided.


There are many changes needed to address the issue of the conflict between work and private life. Some changes concern companies (reducing workload, increasing the workforce, adopting flexible space-time solutions, etc.), while others concern society and individuals. There road to equality is still long.