Flexibility Stigma: The Unspoken Problem Facing Working Women and Men

iStock_000008472982XSmallBy Tina Vasquez, Editor

According to Professor Victoria Brescoll’s June 2013 study, “Ask and Ye Shall Receive? The Dynamics of Employer-Provided Flexible Work Options and the Need for Public Policy”, managers are most likely to grant flexible work schedules to men in high-status jobs who request flextime to pursue career advancement opportunities. Women in both high and low status jobs, on the other hand, are unlikely to be granted flextime for either family or career reasons.

Flexible work options include telecommuting, compressed work weeks, and sharing jobs, among other things. According to the Yale School of Management’s Yale Insights, to study the circumstances under which managers are willing to grant their employees flexible work schedules, the researchers behind “Ask and Ye Shall Receive” asked managers to react to scenarios of employees requesting flextime in the form of a shift in work hours. The scenarios varied in whether an employee was male or female, in a high-status managerial job or a lower-status hourly wage job, and the reason for the flextime request—either for childcare or to take professional development classes. The cruel irony is that researchers found that women in high-status jobs requesting flextime for career advancement were the most likely to think their requests would be granted, though they were the least likely to have their requests granted.

When speaking to Yale Insights, Brescoll said, “Workers most in need of flexible scheduling… are among the least likely to receive accommodations from their managers. All women workers, regardless of their status or the reason for their request, face a gendered wall of resistance to their requests for flextime, while men face status-specific resistance.”

Denied & Stigmatized
Not only do women struggle to obtain the flexible work options they so desperately need, they’re stigmatized when they take advantage of the flex options available to them – and interestingly, so are men. According to Work-Life Law, studies spanning 30 years have consistently verified that employees who use workplace flexibility statutes suffer career detriments. When speaking to the New York Times last summer, Joan C. Williams, founding director of the Center for Work-Life Law, said she invented the term “flexibility stigma” to describe the recent phenomena of companies having flexible work policies on the books, though it’s known to employees that they’ll be informally penalized for using them.

According to the NYT, women often request flextime when starting a family or adding to their family and “this gives employers a reason to view them through the lens of motherhood, prompting the strongest form of gender discrimination because mothers are seen as less competent and less committed to their work.” Surprisingly, the Times reported that men who seek work flexibility are stigmatized and penalized more severely than women “because they’re viewed as more feminine, deviating from their traditional role of fully committed breadwinners.”

Recently, researchers examined the stigma of workplace flexibility in a series of studies published in The Journal of Social Issues. It was found that when men take leave after the birth of a child, they were more likely to be penalized and less likely to get promoted or receive raises. When professional women decide to work reduced hours after having children, they received less meaningful work assignments.

Though it would still be highly problematic, the stigma that men and women face when seeking out flexible work options would make more sense if there was an unequivocal correlation between face time and work output, but that isn’t the case. Catalyst’s 2013 study “The Great Debate: Flexibility vs. Face Time—Busting the Myths Behind Flexible Work Arrangements” found that face time doesn’t lead to top performance outcomes. Not only that, the lack of access to flexible work arrangements has serious consequences for top talent, especially women.

Flex Work Enables Productivity & Work-Life Balance
This is something Sara Sutton Fell deeply understands. Fell is the CEO and founder of FlexJobs, a job search service that helps professionals find flexible jobs. The CEO co-founded her first business when she was still a junior in college and as a start-up, working late hours, pulling all-nighters, and ignoring work-life balance was par for the course. The experience, she says, gave her perspective on how flexible work options can help workers be more productive and still find work-life balance. After stints in several C-suite positions and as a freelancer, working in just about every environment you can imagine, Fell was laid off from her job in 2007 while seven-months pregnant with her first child.

“I knew I wanted to find a job that was in line with my career but would also allow for flexible work options like telecommuting,” Fell said. “My past experiences combined with the frustration of trying to find flexible work amid all the scams out there inspired me to found FlexJobs. I knew there must be other job seekers in similar situations.”

Understanding the additional challenges women are up against, Fell and her team help women find companies who support issues important to them by highlighting specific accolades, like the Working Mother 100 Best Companies to Work For, Glassdoor’s Top Work-Life Companies, Flexpath’s Top Flex Friendly Companies, among others.

The Business Case for Flexible Work Arrangements
Fell found the findings of Brescoll’s study upsetting, particularly the revelation that women are denied flexible work arrangements because their motives for wanting them are associated with family care, even if they’re request for flextime had nothing to do with their personal lives. This type of assumption, she says, is one of the most frustrating components of gender in the workplace.

“This makes it even more important that women who request flexible work options need to focus on how it will benefit the company, their managers, and their coworkers; not on how it will benefit them personally. I am a strong believer that women need to stand up for what they want in the workplace and studies like this show just how important perception is to that process,” the CEO said.

Convincing an employer of the benefits to them shouldn’t be difficult, especially when studies – including Catalyst’s – confirm this. For women in particular, Fell says, flexible work options often mean the difference between being able to continue working after having children, or giving up their careers.

“Flexibility allows women, including the best and brightest, to continue contributing to the workforce and the economy, but working parents of both genders see benefits from flexible work options,” Fell said. “We’ve heard from our job seekers, and studies have shown, that professionals with flexible jobs are happier, more productive, less likely to quit, and healthier than those who don’t have flexible options. They report lower levels of stress, better work-life balance, and feeling more in control of their lives.”

As discussed previously, there is stigma surrounding those seeking out flexible work arrangements based on gender, but more broadly, there is stigma around flex workers based on assumptions surrounding their output. Fell says some of the most dominant misconceptions are based on the idea that professionals with flexible work options are less productive or less ambitious than their peers. It’s also assumed that people who work from home are slacking off all day long. As flexible work options grow, however, more and more studies confirm how productive, ambitious, and dedicated flexible professionals are and as more companies embrace flexible work options, these unfounded perceptions will change.

There is nothing that working women and men can do to eliminate the stigma they face when seeking out and attaining flexible work arrangements; it’s not their mess to clean up. Employers who are interested in addressing this unspoken problem, however, must be willing to be as transparent as possible. Fell says that many flexible work programs start off casually with just a few specific rules and regulations, but before long – and as more employees begin to inquire about telecommuting – the programs get “cloudy”, with many being excluded from these opportunities without much explanation.

This is why Fell says companies need to create formal flexible work programs that outline all the flexible options available to employees, including telecommuting, flextime, alternative schedules, job sharing, and compressed workweeks, among others, as well as how these can be requested, and any other specifics employees should know.

“By making the process easy and understandable, companies will eliminate the ‘mystery’ associated with these work options, and give everyone a chance to benefit from them,” Fell said. “Employers should also communicate a clear understanding of what defines ‘success’ for each role and review/communicate those on a regular basis. Flexible job or not, this is a huge advantage to a company.”

1 Response

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    What an intelligent article with fascinating data behind it. So many great points.

    I agree and believe that those organizations with top and middle managers who are able to shift their mindsets and actual behaviors (not just policies) will be best positioned to win in their markets – for business as well as talent.

    And hopefully, the rising proportion of those with a “Millenial Mindset” in our organizations will help to accelerate this positive movement.

    By the way, the openness associated with the “Millenial Mindset” is not limited to a particular age bracket!