Your Company Expense Policies Are Hurting Women. Here’s Why and How to Fix it
Last year, my previous employer threw a very thoughtful, generous appreciation dinner for our creative leadership team. The dinner was scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on a weeknight. I’m a single mom living in downtown Boston, which meant that I’d have to arrange for a sitter from about 6 p.m.-midnight at $20/hour. Add in some Tasty Burger for my son and the sitter, her tip and Uber home, and this appreciation dinner was going to end up costing me about $200.
So when I received the invite, I couldn’t just check my calendar and accept or decline: I had to have an internal debate with myself about the pros and cons of going and what this dinner would cost me.
Was this dinner worth $200?
I love my coworkers and genuinely have fun when we go out and carouse. I also recognized the importance of being on the creative leadership team (particularly as a “unicorn,” one of the few female CDs in advertising) and why going to events like this matter, both personally and professionally. I decided to go.
At the dinner, I found out that several of my (male) coworkers were staying in the adjacent hotel because they lived too far out of town to drink and drive home safely. As someone sensitive to how the workplace is biased toward men, I couldn’t help but wonder if they would get to expense their hotel stay — meanwhile, their wives were at home taking care of their kids (for free, obviously). I, too, had barriers to attending the event, but mine were less traditional (and not tax-deductible for the company), and therefore less likely to be a covered expense.
After a heated (somewhat wine-fueled) discussion with the department head that night (I went insane about the sexism of the situation, and, to be fair, he quickly agreed), and many emails back and forth with finance, they covered my babysitting that night.
To my former employer’s credit, they often paid for my toddler to come with me when I needed to travel — and I recognize how progressive this is, part of their ongoing effort to improve policies that have such a high impact on women. However, these have been exceptions I’ve had to ask for, and many women aren’t in the position to ask for, much less get, this kind of approval.
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Why isn’t babysitting a reimbursable expense?
At most companies (and everywhere else I’ve worked), non-household expenses such as hotel stays, meals, transportation, and even laundry are reimbursable; expenses for maintaining your home while you are traveling or working (e.g. babysitting, cat sitting) are not. I have never been able to understand the difference between these groupings. If I incur an expense because I am doing something above and beyond for my company, shouldn’t my company pay for that expense? Does it matter if that expense happens inside my apartment or not?
Household expenses are not covered because expense policies (and IRS codes) are still biased toward men. Most of these policies were created when men were traveling, and women were home taking care of the kids.
When the male leaders of this world travel, there is an embedded assumption that they have women at home maintaining the hearth, cooking their meals, taking care of their children, feeding their dogs, watering their plants. They do not need to pay for these services, because it is built in as part of the traditional family unit. They don’t need to pay for babysitting, though they do need drinks and they definitely cannot do their own laundry. You can get $30 for takeout if you work late (because your wife isn’t there to cook you dinner) or $30 for scotch if you want to drink your face off, but you can’t get $30 for a sitter (because your wife is at home with the kids).
A change in policies would help all families
My son is from a donor, so I have no “#2” at home tending the hearth, nor should I need to in order to have a successful leadership position. Yes, changing this policy universally will benefit all families, particularly as they’re becoming more varied—divorced couples, couples with two working parents stretched too thin, parents with life stress that sometimes just needs extra help—and that would be a game-changer for all families. But the point isn’t to solve a “parenting problem,” because this hasn’t traditionally been a problem for all parents. So often, my male coworkers can’t wait to hop on that plane because we’ve just made it so easy for them.
The advertising industry loves to talk about the (lack of) balance of women in leadership, but there’s a lot of “admiring the problem,” and not enough action/financial investment that actually enables women to participate equally.
During the normal workweek, I pay for 55 hours a week in daycare—55 hours per week at a cost of $3,100 a month. I invest my part, as staggering as it feels, because this is my responsibility as a full-time employee, just as it is my responsibility to get myself to work and buy my lunch every day.
But when I am on the road or working above and beyond, these necessities become my employer’s responsibility.
Why is childcare different? Because it’s a woman’s problem.
Dawn Bovasso is a creative director of experience design and content strategy, and spends a lot of time going to Bikram and learning DIY from HGTV. She has a three-year-old son from a donor, and they live in an old factory in Boston.