Flextime has grown increasingly popular with employers and employees alike. It’s a cheap perk for companies to offer, and allows workers the opportunity to escape a rush-hour commute. Flextime also seems like it would offer the perfect solution to one factor in the gender pay gap — namely that the bulk of childcare responsibilities still fall to women in many households. Enable employees to work from home or on a different schedule, the theory goes, and you provide working moms with some flexibility to manage multiple demands on their time.
However, recent research suggests that when it comes to gender equality in the workplace, flextime might not be all it’s cracked up to be.
“The penalty begins before any scheduling adjustments are made,” writes David Burkus at Harvard Business Review. “In a recent study by Furman University’s Christin Munsch, the reactions that men and women receive when requesting flexible work requests are quite different — and quite favorable to men.”
Flextime Can Make Parenting Bias Worse (for Women)
Munsch’s study surveyed 646 U.S. residents between the ages of 18 and 65. Science Daily summarizes it accordingly:
Participants were shown a transcript and told it was an actual conversation between a human resources representative and an employee. The employee either requested a flexible work arrangement or did not. Among those who requested a flexible work arrangement, the employee either asked to come in early and leave early three days a week, or asked to work from home two days a week. Munsch also varied the gender of the employee and the reason for the request (involving childcare or not). After reading their transcript, participants were asked how likely they would be to grant the request and also to evaluate the employee on several measures, including how likeable, committed, dependable, and dedicated they found him or her.
When a man requested flextime for childcare reasons, 69.7 percent of participants were likely or very likely to approve the request. When a woman did the same, the rate dropped to 56.7 percent.
Perhaps even more significantly, only 3 percent of participants found the woman to be “extremely likeable,” compared to nearly a quarter of participants who said the same for men.
Bottom line: women were less likely to get flextime, and more likely to pay a social penalty for asking. (Sound familiar? Research from Hannah Riley Bowles found that women were similarly more likely to suffer a social cost for negotiating salary.)
When it comes to gender equality in the workplace, flextime might not be all it’s cracked up to be.
What’s the Answer?
Obviously, not requesting flextime isn’t much of an option. The reason women need flextime is because the U.S. is so woefully behind other nations when it comes to providing paid parental leave and other policies that support families.
Burkus is clear that neither this study, nor another that showed women with flexible schedules earning less than men with flexible schedules, are reasons to give up on flexible work.
“If these programs aren’t producing the results they’re designed for, the logical step is to look at what adjustments to the design need to be made to eliminate the perceptions and biases that come along with the programs,” he writes.
On a national policy level, that might mean exploring parental leave plans similar to Sweden’s, in which both men and women are encouraged to take leave. If caring for family becomes equally the responsibility of men and women, the bias should disappear.
On a personal level, managers should try to be aware of their own bias — and aware that having bias isn’t the same as acting on it.
For workers, the challenge is greatest. Without the power to change policy or the perception of working mothers, they’ll have to weigh their choices carefully. For some families with two working parents, one male and one female, that might mean having the dad take the flextime, while the mom works a traditional schedule. For others, it will mean not asking for flextime from current employers, but rather targeting future job searches to employers who have policies supporting flexible work.
Regardless of what individual workers choose, it’s best to know how their bosses might react to a request for flextime. Studies like these can help.
Tell Us What You Think
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