"Work to live, don't live to work" is a phrase often heard when trying to achieve that elusive work-life balance. But while more and more companies are supporting the idea of a flexible approach to work and hours, new research has revealed that you might be more likely to get your request approved if you're a man.
Researcher Christin Munsch, assistant professor of sociology at Furman University, found that men who asked to work from home two days a week to care for a child were more likely to get approved compared to women who made the same request.
Munsch used a sample of 646 people living in America who ranged in age from 18 to 65. Participants were shown a transcript and told it was an actual conversation between a human resources representative and an employee. The employee either requested a flexible work arrangement or did not.
Among those who requested a flexible work arrangement, the employee either asked to come in early and leave early three days a week, or asked to work from home two days a week. Munsch also varied the gender of the employee and the reason for the request (involving childcare or not).
After reading their transcript, participants were asked how likely they would be to grant the request and also to evaluate the employee on several measures, including how likeable, committed, dependable, and dedicated they found him or her.
Among those who read the scenario in which a man requested to work from home for childcare related reasons, 69.7% said they would be "likely" or "very likely" to approve the request, compared to 56.7% of those who read the scenario in which a woman made the request.
Almost a quarter — 24.3% — found the man to be "extremely likeable," compared to only 3% who found the woman to be "extremely likeable." And, only 2.7% found the man "not at all" or "not very" committed, yet 15.5% found the woman "not at all" or "not very" committed.
"These results demonstrate how cultural notions of parenting influence perceptions of people who request flexible work," Munsch said. "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."
Munsch fears that this will be an issue as marriages become more egalitarian. "For example, in an arrangement where both partners contribute equally at home and in terms of paid labor — men, but not women, would reap workplace advantages," she said. "In this situation, a move towards gender equality at home would perpetuate gender inequality in the workplace."
Regarding the findings on those who made flexible work requests for childcare versus non-childcare related reasons, Munsch said that "both men and women who requested to work from home or to work atypical hours to take care of a child were viewed as more respectable, likable, committed, and worthy of a promotion, and their requests were more supported than those who requested flexible work for reasons unrelated to childcare."
For example, among those who read a scenario in which an employee asked to work from home two days a week for childcare related reasons, 63.5% of the respondents said they would be "likely" or "very likely" to grant the request. However, only 40.7% of those who read a scenario in which an employee asked to work from home two days a week to reduce his or her commute time and carbon footprint said they would be "likely" or "very likely" to grant the request.
According to Munsch, these findings surprised her. "I was surprised because so much of the research talks about how parents — and mothers in particular — are discriminated against compared to their childless counterparts," she said. "When it comes to flexible work, it seems that engaging in childcare is seen as a more legitimate reason than other, non-childcare related reasons, like training for an endurance event or wanting to reduce your carbon footprint."
While some have championed flexible work options as a way to promote gender equality and as a remedy for work-family conflict, Munsch said that her research "shows that we should be hesitant in assuming this is effective."
Still, Munsch does not believe employers should eliminate flexible work arrangements, but rather they should be cognizant of their biases and the ways in which they "differentially assess people who use these policies, so as not to perpetuate inequality."
This appeared in the paper Flexible Work, Flexible Penalties: The Effect of Gender, Childcare, and Type of Request on the Flexibility Bias, presented to the American Sociological Association.