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My boss gave me flextime when I became a mom, and it became harder to advance my career

When lawyer-turned-entrepreneur Amy Nelson was working as a litigator, she asked her boss for flextime after her first child was born. She quickly realized that such an arrangement effectively meant that she was working 40 hours but at a reduced rate.

My boss gave me flextime when I became a mom, and it became harder to advance my career
[Photo: Bastien Jaillot/Unsplash]

Among the perks that many employees are after, flextime (or flexible work arrangement) is usually high on the list. After all, many professional jobs can be done from anywhere with an internet connection and outside of a 9 to 5 schedule–meetings and deadlines aside. For new parents and those with caregiving responsibilities, a flexible work arrangement can make life a lot easier.

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On its face, flextime policies can seems like a win-win situation. The employee has more “control” over how they manage work and personal obligations, and the employer doesn’t have to spend time and money to find a replacement. In practice, however, the picture doesn’t look so rosy. There are many ways that companies unintentionally penalize flextime workers–and this bias is especially evident when that employee is a mother.

How flextime stigma manifests in the workplace

Flextime stigma plays out in the workplace in various ways. In a 2014 study published on The Journal Of Applied Psychologymost supervisors exhibit a “morning bias”–meaning that they are more likely to rate someone who comes in at 7 a.m. as “conscientious” and and view someone who comes at 11 a.m. less favorably, even if they work the same hours and produce the same output. In addition, workers who work “reduced” hours (for example, a four-day workweek rather than a five-day workweek), often end up doing the work equivalent to a five-day workweek but at a reduced rate.

That’s exactly what happened to Amy Nelson, the cofounder and CEO of the women-centric coworking space The Riveter. Prior to starting The Riveter, Nelson worked as a litigator. When she had her first child, she asked her boss if she could take Wednesdays off but instead she ended up working from home instead of being off. “Very quickly, I realized that I had to take a 20% pay cut to effectively work remotely on Wednesdays,” she says. While the firm was completely receptive to her request, in the end she felt like being a flextime employee hampered her career. “It felt like [there was a perception] that I wasn’t all in, that I wasn’t engaged, and I wasn’t sure what the future of my career would look like . . . I worried what it meant to the people around me and what it signaled, and I didn’t know how it would affect my partnership track.” Nelson ended up leaving the firm to go in-house six months later.

Flextime stigma and motherhood

Flextime stigma and “lack of face time” bias applies to workers of all levels, genders, and backgrounds, but research shows that working mothers often bear the brunt of this stigma. This is especially apparent in comparison to working fathers. A 2014 study demonstrated that when men request flextime, they are more likely to be viewed favorably, whereas women are more likely to be punished for it. As Gwen Moran previously reported for Fast Company, 70% of the study participants were likely to grant a father’s flextime requests and only approximately 56.7% would approve the mother’s. Almost 25% rated men who requested flextime as “likable,” while just 3% of women were rated as such.

Nelson says that while she hasn’t seen many of her male peers take advantage of flextime, she has seen the difference in how others treat fathers in the workplace, compared to how they view mothers. When she and her husband became parents, “the questions [we] got were so startlingly different,” she says. Even though her husband is actively involved in the day-to-day parenting responsibilities, he’d be lauded for taking their child for the doctor’s appointment. “Whereas when I do it,” Nelson says, she feels like others are questioning her commitment to her job.

Flextime doesn’t solve the structural problems of work in Corporate America

This kind of bias, Nelson says, is why so many women are often nervous to request flextime. “I think the common perception is that people are concerned with how [others] are taking it. And I think this can be ameliorated in so many different ways. When I went in-house, I had to be at my desk from 9 to 5,” Nelson says. However, she stresses that she could have done a lot of that work remotely, or completed it outside of the confines of a 9-to-5 schedule.

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Nelson goes on to say that a lot of the stigma that mothers face when they request flexible arrangements comes from the way that work has been traditionally structured and the fact that it hasn’t evolved to reflect current reality. Corporate America, Nelson argues, still operates on the assumption that one parent works full-time while the other stays home to take care of the children (and domestic matters.) This difficulty is exacerbated by other factors like the way that the school system is set up, Nelson says. “I think people are put in this position where we almost have to pretend that we aren’t parents.”

To make any meaningful change, Nelson believes that “we need to accept alternative ways of working that do not mean you aren’t 100% committed.” She acknowledges that this requires a monumental shift in culture and perception that even she herself struggled with. At The Riveter, Nelson intentionally set out to create an environment where her staff aren’t beholden to a specific schedule. One such policy is that they can hold meetings between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., to make space for activities like school drop-offs and pickup.

Yet, she admits that despite her belief that this is what is best for her employees and The Riveter, she was initially nervous about implementing it. “I had to unlearn a lot of what I learned. I knew that I wanted to do this, but it scared me. It scared me because, if I can’t see them working, are they really working?” It took a lot of introspection and reflection of her own experiences for her to get past that fear. 

Nelson hopes that as new generations who aren’t raised with the one-parent income paradigm enter the C-suite, the flextime stigma will start to disappear. But she admits that it’s not going to be easy. “ I do acknowledge that it’s hard to change how the ship is built. If you have been a successful company, it’s hard to change.”

Even Nelson herself was surprised at the positive effect that introducing a flexible working culture has had in her company. After all, it’s not something that she has seen in traditional Corporate America. But she is optimistic that organizations like hers can be an example of success. “We’ve grown from an idea to a company who has 50 employees, we’ve raised over $20 million dollars.” And as Ruth Reader previously reported for Fast Company, Nelson hopes to have 100 coworking spaces by 2022 (as of the time of this article’s publication, the company currently has eight). 

However, Nelson believes change will only happen when more and more organizations that adopt similar policies (and achieve financial success) showcase that. We need more examples of people who are flextime workers who are contributing at full speed, she explains, whether it’s employees who excel at work and have a different schedule, or are in a job-sharing arrangement. “I think we need to share the examples of success in those arenas and document them.”

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Those kinds of examples are what Nelson wished she saw more of when she first became a parent. “I sometimes think when I was pregnant with my first daughter . . . the narrative was that it’s going to be impossible,” she reflects. But the more and more we expose good outcomes, Nelson says, the more more we can destigmatize flextime and change the narrative around what is required to be successful at work.

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About the author

Anisa is the assistant editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. She covers everything from productivity to the future of work

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