Is flexibility in the workplace actually disadvantaging women?

Flexibility in the workplace may be exacerbating gender inequality.

Flexibility in the workplace may be exacerbating gender inequality.

Flexibility in the workplace may be exacerbating gender inequality instead of reducing it, making it much harder for working women to get ahead, an American study has found.

In what appears to contradict the popular view that flexibility at work helps women balance motherhood with their careers, researcher and author Christin Munsch, sociology professor at Furman University in San Francisco, suggests that it is men, not women, who mainly benefit from flexible working arrangements.

For her study, Munsch recruited 646 people, aged between 18 and 65, and showed them a transcript between a human resources representative and an employee, where the worker was either asking for a flexible working arrangement or not. Munsch also varied the gender of the employee, as well as their reason for requesting a flexible work plan - such as caring for a child - in order to gauge the participants’ reactions to various scenarios.

What she found was a little surprising. Among those who read a scenario where a man asked to work from home for childcare-related reasons, almost 70 per cent of all participants said they were “very likely” or “likely” to approve the request. When the same request was put forward by a female employee, the likelihood of the participants granting her the same privilege dropped to 56 per cent.

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Tellingly, almost a quarter of the sample group found the man who asked to work from home “extremely likeable”, while only 3 per cent thought the same of the woman.

“These results demonstrate how cultural notions of parenting influence perceptions of people who request flexible work,” Munsch says.

“Today, we still regard breadwinning as men’s primary responsibility, and we feel grateful if men contribute in the realm of childcare or to other household tasks. [But] we also think of women’s responsibilities as including paid labour and domestic obligations.”

Yolanda Beattie, public affairs executive manager at the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) in Australia, says that women are often punished - by society and their workplace - when they become mothers.

“We are taught that the ideal employee, manager and leader is strong, ambitious and assertive, which are characteristics we identify as being male. It’s what we call the ‘think manager, think male’ theory,” Beattie says.

“So when female workers become mothers, there’s no congruence between being a mother and being a good employee. As a result, we punish women who try to do both, and we immediately judge them as being less committed to their careers.”

Although Beattie agrees that working mothers are seriously shortchanged by workplaces when it comes to their careers, she says the study’s conclusion that flexible arrangements exacerbate gender inequality at work is not the case in Australia.

“Flexibility isn't creating these biases against women at work: the biases are already there… and [the perception of] flexibility is used as just another method to punish women for not conforming to the stereotype of what makes a good worker,” she explains.

For years, gender equality proponents have argued that the traditional workplace - a nine-to-five job, with overtime often an expectation - was no longer the standard for most modern families.

Today, 54 per cent of all Australian couples both have a job, which means that most men can no longer identify with the concept of the “ideal worker” (a full-time, fully committed employee without personal or family commitments that impede their availability to work).

However, managers are still programmed to “not expect women to want to advance their career when children come into the picture”, and have devised a method - flexibility -  which, although seemingly benign, still carries connotations of weakness and a lack of commitment to one’s work.

But Beattie says that if we don’t embrace workplace flexibility as a standard practice, gender inequality will continue to flourish.

“Mainstreaming flexibility is the smart way to work for everybody, and it is the most significant lever you can pull for both men and women to manage caring for children.”

This conclusion, however, contradicts Munsch’s research, which found that men were most likely to gain respect after requesting to work from home, especially if it related to caring for their children.

“In an arrangement where both partners contribute equally at home and in terms of paid labour, men, not women, would reap workplace advantages. In this situation, a move towards gender equality at home would perpetuate gender inequality in the workplace,” Munsch concludes.  

Despite their different experiences, both Munsch and Beattie agree that the only way forward is for all of us to become “aware of our unconscious bias and come up with much more objective ways to measure performance and productivity and make decisions about who to hire and who to promote.”