Women who ask to change their work schedules so they can have more time to care for their children are seen as less likable and committed than men who do the same, according to new research form Christin Munsch at Furman University. Women are also much less likely to have their requests approved.
Munsch had study participants review transcripts between human resources representatives and employees. When a man asked to work from home two days a week to take care of his child, nearly a quarter found him to be “extremely likable” and just 2.7 percent thought he wasn’t committed to the job. When a woman made the same request, on the other hand, just 3 percent found her to be likable and 15.5 percent thought she wasn’t committed to her work. Other studies have found that women with flexible work arrangements are seen as having less dedication to their careers and less motivation to advance.
Nearly 70 percent of Munsch’s participants said they would be likely to approve the man’s request, while just about 57 percent said they would for a woman. This lines up with other research that has found that men are more likely to be given flexible work schedules.
Other research indicates that parents aren’t equally likely to ask for flexibility, as mothers are more likely to do so, so flextime can still perpetuate workplace inequalities if women are the ones rearranging their careers for children. But the study shows it could have troubling implications even if both genders are equally likely to request flexibility at work. If both a father and a mother request flexibility and the father gets rewarded while the mother gets penalized, “In this situation, a move towards gender equality at home would perpetuate gender inequality in the workplace,” Munsch said.
It’s something to keep in mind as public policy is crafted. San Francisco passed a “right-to-request” law last year, which gives employees the right to ask for a flexible schedule, and Vermont enacted a similar one before that. President Obama has called for more flexibility nationwide and also issued a memorandum instituting a right to request law for federal workers. But if flexibility only serves to perpetuate gender imbalances in the workplace, it may not do much for working women in the long run, even if it might ease their burden in the short run.
Other policies that could have a more gender neutral impact would be universal child care and paid parental leave. When men are offered paid leave, they are very likely to take it, and the more men who take it, the more men around them become likely to do the same. And universal child care would free women up to go to work by giving them somewhere affordable and high-quality to leave their children, reducing their need to interrupt their careers to care for them. The U.S. could also guarantee more paid time off generally for sick days, vacation days, and holidays, none of which are a given for the country’s workforce, and think about ways to limit our ever-increasing workweek.