Heather Boushey is Executive Director and Chief Economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth and a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Her research focuses on economic inequality and public policy, specifically employment, social policy, and family economic well-being. She is the author of “Finding Time: The Economics of Work-Life Conflict” from Harvard University Press.

The New York Times has called Boushey one of the “most vibrant voices in the field,” and she testifies often before Congress on economic policy issues. Her research has been published in academic journals; she writes regularly for popular media, including The New York Times’ “Room for Debate,” The Atlantic, and Democracy; and she makes frequent television appearances on Bloomberg, MSNBC, CNBC, and PBS. Boushey previously served as an economist for the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress, the Center for Economic and Policy Research, and the Economic Policy Institute, and also sits on the board of the Opportunity Institute. She received her Ph.D. in economics from the New School for Social Research and her B.A. from Hampshire College.

1MFWF: You note that American businesses used to have “a silent partner” who was once integral to profitability, but now no longer exists. Who was this person and what happened to them?

Heather: That “silent partner” was the American Wife. She didn’t show up at board meetings or make demands, but she was integral to businesses’ profitability. She made sure the American Worker showed up for work well rested (he didn’t have to wake up at 3 a.m. to feed the baby or comfort a child after a nightmare), in clean clothes (that he neither laundered nor stacked neatly in the closet), with a lunch box packed to the brim with cold-cut sandwiches, coffee, and a home-baked cookie.

This meant that for decades, the American Wife gave American businesses a big fat bonus. Her time at home made possible the American Worker’s time at work.

But American families look different today. Wives, and women more generally, work outside the home because they need to and because they want to. The American Wife is now a family breadwinner, and her contribution to our economy is no longer silent—it shows up in our nation’s gross domestic product.

A family with a working woman is now the norm, and has been for some time. Now women bring home at least a quarter of the earnings in more than two-thirds of families with children. In a growing number of households, women bring in half or even more of the earned income. This shift has been good for businesses and the economy.

1MFWF: What do you mean by the phrase, “A firm is not the whole economy”—and how does it relate to work flexibility?

Heather: Economists are often asked what’s good, or not good, for “the economy.” Any individual business owner or worker has their own answer, but in economics, we look at the whole system. And the performance of “the economy” doesn’t hinge solely on the short-term interests of businesses.

When we approach this question with an economist’s set of tools, we see that the key players are households (most of which are families) and businesses (also called firms). And a few things jump out.

First, to understand what’s good for the economy, we must look at demand and supply. This means looking at what happens inside firms and families. Not just firms. Not just families. Both.

Second, there are out-of-pocket and hidden costs and benefits for both firms and families. Costs aren’t only what firms pay out of pocket, and benefits aren’t only about more money. Costs include all of the hidden costs such as the cost of turnover when an employee leaves over a scheduling issue or because they didn’t have access to family leave. Turnover costs can add up and are about the same percentage of salary for workers up and down the income ladder, not only for the highest paid. But, there are also lots of benefits that may not immediately obvious. For example, businesses report that paid sick days can reduce firm-wide “sick outs,” where everyone comes down with a flu or cold because the person who got sick first didn’t have the ability to stay home, recover, and not spread their germs. Much depends on productivity—how do firms get the most out of their workforce?

Third, long-term trends may matter just as much as—sometimes even more than—short-term trends. Productivity increases sometimes take a while to show up. Upfront costs might be obvious, but benefits may not appear immediately.

Workplace flexibility is both about making sure that hours work for both the employee and their manager, as we well as the flexibility to be home when a worker has a new child, or when the worker is sick or needs to care for a loved one who is ill. These policies reduce the conflicts that can lower employee retention and can reduce productivity.

1MFWF: You share the striking statistic that if every firm in the country adopted work flexibility, our economy could save about $15 billion annually. What would this savings stem from?

Heather: Maximizing productivity means getting the most out of employees. This is an age-old problem—but as they say, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

To increase productivity, managers can impose long or unpredictable hours, no paid time off, or no flexibility. But research shows that when managers pay employees fairly and treat them with respect, they get more out of their employees over the long haul—and they’re less likely to quit, which would cost the firm money as it would have to cope with an absence, find a replacement, and train that new person up.

Henry Ford learned that lesson a century ago. In 1914, he doubled his workers’ pay and set the workday at 8 hours—a large drop from the standard 60-hour workweek for manufacturing workers. He said that what motivated him was higher productivity. And it worked.

1MFWF: Why is it important for work flexibility to be administered consistently across an organization, rather than at the discretion of individual managers?

There are two reasons. First, morale. Second, fairness.

Schedules are a big challenge in many modern workplaces. Most families no longer have that traditional American Wife who stays home and can both provide care and handle all the things that need to get done, such as cleaning, shopping, and cooking. This means that most managers have to assume their employees are both workers and caretakers.

Giving flexibility to just some workers may exclude many who also need—or want—flexibility, reducing morale and perhaps causing resentment of those who have access to flexibility. Further, while someone may not have a need now, they may if their aging parent needs some extra help.

It’s also not fair to make gender-based assumptions about what happens inside homes. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has provided guidance for what they call “Family Responsibilities Discrimination,” when someone who’s a caregiver isn’t treated fairly at work. But this also includes assuming that a new mom needs to cut back her hours so she can be a better caretaker, while a new dad needs to ramp up his hours so he can be a better breadwinner.

1MFWF: What can our readers do to help ensure that work/family conflict is (finally) identified as an issue of national economic importance, rather than a private matter or a values issue?

Heather: Share your stories. Tell your elected officials how these issues matter to you, your family, and to your community, and tell them what you want them to do about it. And don’t accept the nonsense that these issues aren’t about the strength of our economy or that these issues are unimportant. How we live our days, and how we find time for work and for care are among the most important questions facing our families and our economy.

photo credit: Heather Boushey