Work–Family Conflict is a Racial Justice Issue

Kelly D. Chandler, Ph.D., Assistant Professor; Kara K. McElvaine, M.S., doctoral student; Jey Blodgett, M.S., doctoral candidate; and Corine Tyler, M.S., doctoral candidate, Human Development and Family Sciences, Oregon State University
/NCFR Report, Fall 2021

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Kelly D. Chandler
From left: Kelly D. Chandler, Ph.D.; Kara K. McElvaine, M.S., doctoral student; Jey Blodgett, M.S., doctoral student; and Corine Tyler, M.S.

In Brief

  • Black employees contend with structural racism that affects their work and their family life.
  • Work–family policies and workplace culture can create racial disparities in experiences of work–family conflict.
  • An organizational justice framework can help inform research, policy reform, workplace culture transformations, and Family Life Education efforts to dismantle these racial disparities.

 

U.S. employment has historically sustained racial oppression. Changes in family demography and employment over the past four decades—with a concomitant lag in work–family supports for employees—has increased work–family conflict (WFC; Nomaguchi, 2009). WFC arises when time, energy, and behaviors needed to perform one role (employee) interfere with fulfilling responsibilities in another role (partner, parent; Greenhaus & Beutell, 1985). Policy and workplace culture can create racial disparities in WFC, which is linked to numerous pernicious effects on employee and family health and well-being (Greenhaus et al., 2006; Vahedi et al., 2019). In this article, we describe how Black employees may be at a greater risk of experiencing WFC and its consequences than their White peers, and how increased research on Black employees’ work experiences using an organizational justice framework (Byrne & Cropanzano, 2001), policy reform, workplace culture change, and Family Life Education can begin to dismantle racial disparities in WFC.

Structural Racism and Employment

The risk of WFC is particularly high for Black employees because of structural racism, both in society and in their organizations. Structural racism—the interdependence of institutions and systems (e.g., schools, businesses) that perpetuates racial discrimination—imposes barriers on Black employees’ ability to find and secure jobs in workplaces supportive of workers’ and their families’ well-being (Reskin, 2012). One such form of structural racism in the workplace includes policies and practices covertly designed to maintain the racial hierarchy. For example, hiring and promotion practices (e.g., call-back preferences for “White-sounding” names) can provide White job-seekers disproportionately greater access to better employment opportunities, wages, and working conditions than Black job seekers, especially Black women (Okechukwu et al., 2013). Such practices ensure that Black individuals are disadvantaged in obtaining jobs and securing positions to support their families financially and in accessing benefits to accommodate work–family needs (e.g., paid family leave). Despite the fact that antidiscrimination laws have been in place in the United States since the early 1960s, discriminatory actions against Black employees who are able to find and secure such jobs still regularly occur (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, n.d.).

Other forms of structural racism that likely contributes to higher WFC for Black employees is a White supremacist workplace culture or workplace norms based on White modes of operation (Okun, 2021). Often these norms are deeply embedded in how a workplace functions on a day-to-day basis and position other standards of operation and ways of interacting as unacceptable. White supremacist culture permeates organizations, both explicitly and implicitly, when employers evaluate Black employees’ appearance, communication style, and performance against White standards (Rabelo et al., 2020). In turn, evaluations rooted in White culture can place pressure on Black employees to assimilate by spending additional time and energy on racially code switching between work and family in order to meet their employer’s expectations—an example of behavior-based WFC.

White supremacist workplace norms include, for example, an expectation that employees in higher positions (e.g., managers) need not share decision-making power with employees in lower positions (i.e., paternalism; Okun, 2021). Consequently, even when work–family benefits are available, there can be an implementation gap between formal workplace policies (“on the books”) and practice (Lewis & Haas, 2005). The ways power manifests in White supremacist culture may cause disproportionately more Black employees to experience WFC. For example, flexible work arrangements often are approved solely at the discretion of supervisors. Given that supervisors are primarily White, this form of workplace paternalism not only is disempowering to Black employees but also can introduce racial bias into whom a supervisor does and does not approve for work–family benefits. Flexible work arrangements may not be formally documented, which limits recourse if a supervisor files a complaint about when and where an employee works. Proving race as a motivating factor in a supervisor’s treatment of employees is extremely difficult (Oppenheimer, 2003) in the deeply entrenched White supremacist culture.

The intersection of racism and sexism adds additional complexity in the case of working Black women. Black women, specifically mothers, are further disadvantaged because they often do not conform to the gendered ideal worker norm of someone who works full-time and prioritizes work over other commitments (Williams, 2000). It is difficult for women to achieve this ideal worker status while shouldering more caregiving demands than men do. Employers may marginalize Black women for being Black, for being a woman, and for being a parent, thereby creating an intersecting accumulation of work–family challenges. Indeed, among a national sample of African American women in Fortune 1000 companies, workplace racial bias predicted more work–family conflict (Cole & Secret, 2012).

Organizational Justice Framework

“Organizational structures and processes serve as gatekeepers to work–life supports and, more broadly, to opportunities for balancing work and personal life,” explained Lambert and Waxman (2005, p. 104). Therefore, an organizational justice framework (Byrne & Cropanzano, 2001) offers a provocative starting place for workplaces to investigate how Black employees perceive the fairness of their workplaces writ large and family-friendly policies more specifically (Grandey, 2001). Organizational justice offers a lens for understanding employee perceptions of workplace fairness across four domains: distributive justice (e.g., distribution of pay and work–family benefits), procedural justice (e.g., decision-making processes), interpersonal justice (e.g., respectful treatment), and informational justice (e.g., timely, tailored communication). There is some empirical evidence of a link between organizational justice and WFC. Recently, May et al. (2020) found that correctional officers’ perceptions that their employers demonstrated higher levels of procedural justice (e.g., fairness of the promotional process) had lower levels of work–family strain. Although race was not centered in May et al.’s study, we posit that the combination of race-related stressors with workplace injustice may affect employees of color more acutely than White employees (Williams, 2018). As such, workplaces striving to become more antiracist need to consider using an organizational justice framework to promote equitable distribution of opportunities to enhance work–family fit.

Implications

A multilevel approach is necessary to dismantle systems of racial oppression in the workplace involving action by Family Scientists, policymakers, organizations, and Family Life Educators.

Advancing Research

Family Scientists can advance racial justice by increasing theory and research on Black individuals’ work–family experiences. There are few studies on this topic and, of the existing studies, the findings are mixed and tend to use racial comparisons. Further, there is limited research on race and stigma vis-à-vis work–family policies and practices (Williams et al., 2013). Developing theory relevant to Black individuals’ work–family experiences, including workplace racial discrimination and organizational justice, would advance the Family Science discipline and, more important, advance efforts to dismantle systems of racial oppression. Because of space limitations, we focused on the work side of the work–family equation. We would be remiss not to acknowledge that racial discrimination and inequities outside the workplace affect family life in profound ways and that family experiences affect work. As such, theories and research must capture family factors that contribute to WFC, too.

Policy

Historical roots of racism are evident in how policies perpetuate racial oppression and disparities. Entrenched and implicit biases about race, as well as gender, work, and family obligations, influence a government’s (in)action (Lewis & Haas, 2005). A social justice lens is essential for enacting equitable work–family policies. As Lewis and Haas noted, “Insofar as government policies influence perceptions of what is fair and just, they have great potential to drive change” (p. 52). Furthermore, work–family policies will be effective when they support Black families directly and also hold employers accountable for equitable treatment (Lambert & Haley-Lock, 2004).

Organizational Culture

Organizations can address work–family challenges and racism via antiracist policies and workplace culture transformation. At the core of initiatives to change workplace culture must be the dismantling of White supremacist culture and creating an inclusive organizational culture (Shore et al., 2018). In addition, organizations can address racial inequities and respond to work–family challenges by promoting justice in the workplace (Judge & Coquitt, 2004), which can be accomplished by including employees’ views in decision-making processes and implementing interventions to reduce WFC fairly and equitably among employees (Arneguy et al., 2018). Supervisors’ family supportive behaviors and role in interpersonal justice are powerful influences on WFC (Judge & Colquitt, 2004; Kelly et al., 2014). In addition, given supervisors’ power and influence, their social justice training, modeling, and accountability is paramount. Changing work—that is, reducing workplace discrimination and WFC—will benefit employees and their families (Okechukwu et al., 2013).

Practice

For the family side of the work–family interface, Family Life Educators can contribute to dismantling racism by incorporating antiracist content into their curriculum. This curriculum can help families develop an awareness of individual and structural factors that perpetuate or dismantle racial discrimination and WFC. Moreover, educators can help parents develop foundational antiracist skills at home to be better prepared to have conversations about racism, oppression, and privilege with their children in developmentally appropriate ways. Parental socialization—via interactions, direct instruction, and providing opportunities—is an important mechanism toward racial justice. Last, Family Life Educators can support Black families by providing education and resources to navigate racial discrimination in the workplace and to reduce WFC.

Conclusion

In the United States, WFC continues to increase (Nomaguchi, 2009) and structural racism persists. Both create racial disparities in Black families’ ability to integrate work and family life successfully. WFC is a racial justice issue that requires intentional, collaborative action among Family Scientists, policymakers, organizations, Family Life Educators, and others to support Black families at work and at home.

 

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