Workplace flexibility is meant to be an equalizer for those struggling to balance their careers and duties at home, like new moms and dads who feel heightened stress returning to work. However, a new study claims that programs like telework, popular in government agencies, are breeding inequality based on gender and parental status.
The American Sociological Association-published study found that people tend to view men more favorably when granting requests for a flexible, non-traditional work schedule. For instance, when given a theoretical prompt in which a man asked to work from home for childcare related reasons, about 70 percent of study participants said they would likely allow him to do so. Nearly a quarter of respondents also found the man to be “extremely likable.”
In an identical same scenario, though, women got a very different response. Only 56.7 percent said they’d likely approve the woman’s request, and only 3 percent found her likable.
“These results demonstrate how cultural notions of parenting influence perceptions of people who request flexible work,” said Christin Munsch, the author of the study. “Today, we think of women’s responsibilities as including paid labor and domestic obligations, but 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.”
While flexible work environments, like those encouraged by President Obama’s recent federal memorandum titled “Enhancing Workplace Flexibilities and Work-Life Program,” are meant to promote gender equality in an age when more mothers are pulling double duty, Munch said her study “shows that we should be hesitant in assuming this is effective.”
Julie Brill, a manager of the Work-life programs in the Office of Personnel Management, said the new effort is meant so that “all employees have equal and equitable access to the flexibilities they need to support their dual work and non-work responsibilities in whatever form those take. One of the primary goals of the [memorandum] is to eliminate any arbitrary or unnecessary barriers to the use of workplace flexibilities to ensure a more balanced workplace. OPM views the [memorandum] as key to ensuring equitable access to these flexibilities as we work to shape and support a workforce able to meet the challenges of 21st century work.”
OPM Director Katherine Archuleta released her own memorandum recently further stressing the importance of a flexible federal workplace. “Work-life is the business practice of creating a flexible, supportive environment to engage employees and maximize organizational performance. Work-life programs are critical management, recruitment, and retention tools for the Federal community as we strive to maintain an excellent, engaged workforce,” Archuleta wrote, adding that no federal employee should fear retaliation in requesting a more flexible work schedule.
Despite the perceptions found in the ASA study, Brill said OPM has seen a near equal reporting of men and women teleworking. And according to the federal employee viewpoint surveys of 2011 and 2012, men actually claimed more barriers to teleworking than women did by 5 percent each year.
In the end, the OPM findings might hold more weight than Munsch’s study. Though years old, the federal employee viewpoint survey comes from actual employees experiencing real work-life balance and their interactions with those who actually make decisions about their work flexibility. The ASA study, however, provided more of a theoretical look at normal people’s perceptions of work flexibility — people who might not necessarily be understanding of or used to making those decisions.