The comments on Aeron Haynie's post last week got me thinking: are benefits for working parents fair? Some commenters suggest that they aren't, that parents get "extra compensation" in the guise of health insurance, tuition remission benefits, etc. Of course, those don't end up as money in the pockets of said parents -- but they are additional expenses paid by the employer, it's true. Still, as a parent, it sure doesn't feel as if I'm somehow better compensated than my childless colleagues. All that "extra" money doesn't come close to covering the true expenses of raising children, after all.
But that's not really the point. I shouldn't earn a higher salary to compensate for my increased expenses, nor should my childless colleague earn a lower one for his/her comparatively lesser ones. We can't means-test for benefits, in other words: they need to be available to whomever qualifies. And at most universities, faculty sit on boards that set at least some of the benefits, so presumably these are the benefits that the faculty, along with the adminstration, believe are appropriate. But "fair" in this case does not necessarily mean "equal" any more than it means "proportional to need." It's a balancing act between the two, and it should be.
After all, no two employees cost an employer the same amount of money, parents or not. If two employees live different distances from a conference site, the employer generally reimburses their travel based on their actual -- and different -- expenses, not on some imaginary "fair" number. Often new employees are reimbursed for moving expenses -- is it fair to pay more for employees coming from a greater distance? Start-up costs and lab expenses for faculty in different fields make for wildly different compensation packages: can I ask for cash to match up to what my scientist colleagues get in lab equipment costs?
My kids complain all the time that things aren't fair when they aren't equal. My son learned a lot of math by counting the brownies in a pan and dividing by the number of eaters: he's absolutely convinced that he, the smallest member of the family, should have the same number of brownies as anyone else. But "fair" is a relative term. We try, at home, to treat our children fairly. That may mean one gets more brownies on a given day because the other had a snack at school; it may mean that one takes part in two after-school activities while the other has a part-time job. We check in periodically to make sure we feel that things -- money, time, gifts, treats -- are divided up appropriately, but that doesn't always mean they get the same stuff. Nor should it. Children teach us that fairness is contextual, and always an approximation. But we try to do our best.