Caregivers hide actions to enhance careers

University faculty with family responsibilities may practice bias avoidance behaviors to hide their caregiving responsibility and to prevent biased, negative career implications, according to a Penn State labor studies expert.

"We divide bias avoidance behaviors into productive types that improve work performance and unproductive types that are inefficient," says Dr. Robert Drago, professor of labor studies and industrial relations and women's studies. "Our study of university faculty indicates that both types of bias avoidance are relatively common, with women more often reporting both types."

Productive bias avoidance includes behaviors that minimize actual family commitments to improve work performance and facilitate career success. Productive behaviors improve career chances because they increase the time and energy available for the job. In the case of university faculty, people may choose to delay partnering or marriage, limit the number of children raised or delay child rearing, until they attain tenure.

Unproductive bias avoidance behaviors produce the appearance of commitment to the job, but either have no effect or hinder job performance. These behaviors include not requesting flex time for fear it will look bad, making excuses for absences or missed meetings rather than admitting caregiver responsibilities, and not asking to stop the tenure clock. Unproductive bias avoidance behaviors are particularly puzzling in the academic world where tenure qualifications are measured by scholarship, teaching and research.

Drago and Carol Colbeck, professor of education, looked at men and women who had faculty appointments in either English or Chemistry. The two disciplines were chosen because they represent areas where there are few women chemistry and many women English. These disciplines also differ in that chemistry requires fast-paced publishing, pressures for external funding, competition between groups and collaborative work within research groups, while English generally has a slower pace for publication, little available external funding, minimal competition and generally solitary work.

The researchers looked at faculty from educational institutions ranging from 2-year associate degree granting institutions to major research institutions. They eventually sampled 507 institutions. A survey of 36 items estimated to take five minutes to complete was completely filled out and returned by 4,188 participants for a 28.6 percent response rate. Each respondent could donate $2 to a charity of their choice as incentive to fill out the survey.

"Foremost, the survey provided empirical support for the existence of productive and unproductive bias avoidance behaviors," Drago told attendees at the 2006 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science today (Feb. 19) in St. Louis, Mo. "Employees do strategize to avoid career penalties by minimizing or hiding caregiving commitments."

Another finding is that women more often engage in both productive and unproductive bias avoidance behavior.

"We found that locations with supportive supervisors reported reduced rates and probably had a reduction in bias avoidance behaviors," says Drago. "Institutions with gender equality seem to report lower levels of bias avoidance for women."

Other findings were mixed. Women in chemistry reported returning to work too soon after childbirth. Women employed in institutions where teaching was the major focus reported missing more important events in their children's lives. Women at institutions with gender equity more often reported taking advantage of the ability to stop the tenure clock.

"Women-friendly institutions also tend to be family-friendly for women," says Drago.

While the survey only looked at university and college faculty, bias avoidance strategies probably exist for other employees, but research into specific fields would be necessary to show where and to what extent.

"Because bias avoidance and gender appear to be linked, successful attempts to achieve gender equity at colleges and universities will probably require reductions in the incidence of both productive and unproductive avoidance behaviors," says Drago.

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The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation supported this research.


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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