Flexibility is making the news again, and while many people feel that flex time should be a given, two recent studies suggest flex time programs could be costly to those who use them, especially women. In fact, one study found that the penalty begins before any scheduling adjustments are made. Furman University’s Christin Munsch studied over 600 working age individuals and learned that the reactions that men and women receive when requesting flexible work requests are quite different — and quite favorable to men.
Munsch found that when male employees requested flexible schedules to accommodate child care requests, almost 70% of participants were either likely or very likely to grant the request. When female employees made the same request, that number dropped to around 57%. In addition, participants were much more likely to evaluate the men as likable and committed than the women.
If Munsch’s study is indicative of the workplace culture at large, women still have a problem being viewed as responsible for domestic and childcare duties, rather than being the breadwinners of the family. The need to make it all work is something that employers must consider to maintain high-performing women employees. Many women who started out with all the ambition in the world find themselves in a place they never expected to be. They do not choose to leave their jobs and they are shut out of advancement by the refusal of their bosses to make it possible for them to fit their family life and their work life together. And in this instance, they are being maligned for something men are being applauded for.
Even if flexible scheduling can be granted without bias, the second study, conducted by researchers in Germany, suggests that it might be exacerbating the gender wage gap. In a survey of over 30,000 people, researchers Yvonne Lott and Heejung Chung examined the impact of flexible scheduling on hours worked – particularly overtime – and found that men and women who switched to flexible scheduling all worked more overtime than those who worked a fixed schedule. However, men used the extra time to earn significantly more than women in the same program.
The researchers speculated that men are more likely to gain schedule control because of increased productivity or a promotion and use that control to set an even more productive schedule. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to use their control to better accommodate their family schedule. Even if they use their flex time to be more productive, their peers may perceive them as still focusing on family tasks first.
Flexibility needs to work for men and women equally, and both of these studies take frustrating looks at a much-needed workplace benefit. Bottom line, people with adaptable work environments – both men and women – tend to have healthier habits with time for both self-improvement and family and friends, which makes them more productive and efficient when they work. Flexibility doesn’t just benefit women’s work performance. Research has looked at more subjective areas affected by schedule flexibility, including people’s happiness and satisfaction. Studies show that when people can choose to do things, like take their kids to school, sleep in or help their spouse that they’ll enjoy better relationships, a better quality of life, and be happier with their employment. The Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College cites additional benefits of flexible work environments, which include less stress and burnout, improved work-life and work-family balance, and less negative spillover from work to home and from home to work.
This issue affects every company through potential loss of top talent. As my Leading Women co-author Gloria Feldt points out in her book, No Excuses, many women are opting out of the very career paths that could shift them to the highest clout positions and lead to gender parity. We need women to step into leadership roles, which means we need every CEO and business owner to keep in mind the fact that everyone wins with an open and flexible path to leadership, a path that maximizes the desire to lead with the environment that supports it for both genders. Removing double standards and improving flex time options would make the greatest move toward improving the lives of every man and woman in the workplace, and strengthening the company’s almighty bottom line.