Here's one way women have it better than men at work

By Danielle Paquette

Research shows there are still barriers and stigmas in the way of men accessing flexible work. Photo / iStock
Research shows there are still barriers and stigmas in the way of men accessing flexible work. Photo / iStock

As the number of breadwinner mothers quadrupled in the US over the past half-century, stereotypical gender roles began fading away. A dad who does his kids' laundry is no longer an adorable anomaly. A mother grinding toward the corner office is just another ambitious employee.

The workplace, however, hasn't transformed with the changing ideals of workers.

The latest example: Men are twice as likely as women to have their request for a flexible work schedule rejected, according to a new study from Australia.

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Researchers at Bain & Company, an international consulting firm, and Chief Executive Women, an Australian advocacy group, surveyed 1,030 employees about how they juggled work and life.

Thirty-eight percent of the female respondents said they worked flexible hours - part-time, night shift, etc. - while 28 percent of male respondents said the same.

Men aren't necessarily less interested in flexible work schedules. Those who asked for more family-friendly hours sometimes encountered an insidious form of discrimination.

One said his manager told him, "part-time is traditionally only something we make work for women." Another reported, "My boss told me I wouldn't be able to get promoted working part-time."

Another added, "The arrangements worked as agreed, but I have felt judgement for using them."

Melanie Sanders, a Bain partner who co-wrote the report, concluded this outdated attitude hurts everyone: Men can't lead the lives they want, and women in dual-income households are stuck shouldering more domestic responsibilities.

There are barriers still in the way of men accessing flexible work which suggest that they are suffering the stigmas and biases that women experienced more severely in the early days of their use of flexible working.

Further, another recent study from Bain's American arm found that men and women counted on building flexible careers almost equally. The 2015 survey of 1,500 business school students and graduates determined that both groups wanted to achieve their professional goals while making time for Billy's soccer game.

Half of the women and 51 percent of the men said they planned to emphasise non-work commitments over their career progression. Forty-four percent of the men said they wanted a job that would allow them to take breaks, while 52 percent of women reported the same.

"This longing for rich, multidimensional lives might seem obvious to the millennial generation," wrote Julie Coffman, a Bain partner, in an essay published this week. "But when I started analysing the survey responses, it hit me how much the world has changed since I earned my MBA from Stanford in 1993."

Coffman, who works in Chicago, said the culture has rapidly shifted, even in highly competitive fields.

"Today, young people just assume that they have more options and talk openly about them," she wrote. "More men say that they don't want to shoulder the primary income responsibility for their entire life. Men and women alike discuss aspirations outside of work, the importance of family or community or spirituality, and the desire to pursue some other personal passion."

Virtually all interviewees - men and women - reiterated some version of the 'work-family narrative' to explain why women quit or failed to make partner: the job requires extremely long hours; women's (but not men's) devotion to family impedes their ability to put in the requisite hours, and their careers suffer as a result.

About three-quarters of U.S. firms now allow some kind of scheduling flexibility, according to government data. But only 11 percent of full-time workers have a formal agreement with their employers to vary their work hours, while 18 percent operate under an informal agreement.

"The reason for the low usage rates? Fears of negative career repercussions - fears that appear to be well founded: the use of flexibility policies has been shown to result in wage penalties, lower performance evaluations and fewer promotions," wrote Joan Williams, founding director of the Center for Work-Life Law, with fellow academics Mary Blair-Loy and Jennifer Berdahl in the Flexibility Stigma.

"As a result, some flexibility programmes appear to be merely 'shelf paper' - offered for public relations reasons but accompanied by a tacit message that workers use them at their peril."

The stigma differs by gender, Collins argues. Women are lauded for being "good mothers" when they take time off, she wrote - although they still encounter fewer promotions and less pay. Men are often perceived as, well, less manly.

"Men who fail to demonstrate work devotion, by requesting family leave or workplace flexibility, are typically seen as failing in their role as men," the researchers wrote.

The United States guarantees no paid family leave. A third of American workers can't even take a paid sick day. The labour policies of today were largely established before most women held jobs, at a time when one middle-class income could support a household. Some of those 1950s employer values, it appears, have held steady in the Western world.

Men who fail to demonstrate work devotion, by requesting family leave or workplace flexibility, are typically seen as failing in their role as men.

Last year, Robyn Ely, a business professor at Harvard University, argued that progressive family-friendly policies, such as paid maternity leave and sick days, just aren't enough to curb gender inequality in a 24-7 work culture. Both men and women suffer, she said, when bosses apply gender assumptions to requests for flexible schedules.

Her team looked at an international consulting firm that, according to its leadership, couldn't hold on to female talent. The company, not named in the research, offered generous family-friendly benefits. But 90 percent of the partners were men, working at least 60 hours each week.

Through interviews with employees, Ely learned that women who worked flexible hours were viewed as uncommitted to their jobs. People assumed that men who left early were off to meet clients. Either way, any overt non-work focus was seen as a liability.

"Virtually all interviewees - men and women - reiterated some version of the 'work-family narrative' to explain why women quit or failed to make partner: the job requires extremely long hours; women's (but not men's) devotion to family impedes their ability to put in the requisite hours, and their careers suffer as a result," the researchers wrote.

The study unearthed another startling discovery: Just as many men were leaving the firm as women. They felt pressure to work through family commitments, Ely said, and "suffer in silence."

One solution: Men who want more time off for family matters should request it, she said, and male bosses should learn to accept that.

That way, "devotion to family" wouldn't fall just on women's shoulders. Work-life balance could be an acceptable quest for everyone.

- Washington Post

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