Gender Inequality’s Latest Victim: Flex-Time Requests

Moms who request flexible schedules to care for children are judged much more harshly than dads. Why are we still stigmatizing by gender?

Chalk another one up for "one step forward, two steps back." Women who request time off care for children are penalized, while men requesting flex-time are viewed as both more likable and committed to their jobs.

A study presented yesterday at the American Sociological Association examined 646 requests for non-traditional hours and work-from-home time. Study author Christin Munsch, an assistant professor of sociology at Furman University, varied the requests, gender and age of the employees as well as whether they were making the request to take care of children. The results showed that men requesting time off for child care were ranked favorable, while such requests could actually hurt a woman’s reputation.

Nearly 70% of the study's participants would be likely or very likely to approve the man’s request while only roughly 56.7% would approve the woman’s. Nearly one quarter of the fathers making the request were ranked extremely likable, versus only 3% of women. And 15.5% of women who wanted flex time for child care reasons were ranked "not at all" or "not very" committed compared to only 2.7% of their male counterparts.

Human resources expert Nancy S. Ahlrichs, strategic account manager at talent management firm Flashpoint in Indianapolis and author of Competing for Talent, isn’t surprised. She says there is a major cultural shift going on when it comes to the acceptance of flex time and equality in marriage and child care, but some managers, especially baby boomers, haven’t yet gotten the memo.

"Many boomers think work is a place you go and many gen Xers and millennials think it’s something you do. They have completely different concepts," she says.

But other experts think that this study represents a cultural shift of its own. Joanie Connell, Ph.D., founder of San Diego leadership consulting firm Flexible Work Solutions and author of Lessons from the Workplace: What Parents and Schools Are Missing, says that up until recently, men were more stigmatized for requesting time off for child care. As more men have done so, however, to it’s become more favorably viewed.

At the same time, when women do so, it reinforces the stereotype that mothers have too many demands on their time to be truly committed to their jobs. So, when requests that hint at a working mother needing more time off for child care emerge, some managers will make that assumption, Connell says.

Will we ever get beyond the stigma and stereotypes that working mothers have to face? We’re getting there Ahlrichs says. She finds newer managers skewing to be far less hierarchical and more egalitarian in everything from their work to their marriages. There’s a true "we’re all in this together" attitude that makes such work and family balance efforts more acceptable.

Connell says that women also need to change the way they negotiate, which may actually train others to think less of them when they make requests. She says that women tend to apologetically ask for what they think is reasonable, while men often ask for what they think they can get with no apologies. That approach immediately puts women at a disadvantage.

"It’s the way we’re socialized as we grow up. Women need to become more empowered to ask for what they want," Connell says.

Ahlrichs says this inequity in viewing leave time is a risk for companies—and one that should be dealt with before it can do harm. She says organizations that don’t make the shift to focus on results rather than how or where the work gets done are going to have a harder time competing for talent. If women feel penalized or judged for doing what they need to do to take care of their families, they’re going to leave and go to other places with more family-friendly policies, she says.

"If you have your boomer managers retiring and you’re losing gen X and millennial women because of your policies, pretty soon you’re going to have a recruitment problem on your hands," she says.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that 5% of the studies participants would approve a woman's flex time request. We regret the error.

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