A new study shows that when asking for flexible work arrangements, especially for childcare-related reasons, men are more likely to have an advantage.
Researcher Dr. Christin Munsch, an assistant professor of sociology at Furman University, analyzed the reactions both men and women received when making flexible work requests to either work from home or to work non-traditional hours.
She found that men who asked to work from home two days a week in order to care for a child were “significantly advantaged” compared to women who made the same request.
Munsch, who presented her research at the 109th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, also found that both men and women who made flexible work requests for childcare-related reasons were advantaged compared to those who made the same requests for other reasons.
For her study, Munsch asked 646 U.S. citizens who ranged in age from 18 to 65 to read a transcript of what they were told was an actual conversation between a human resources representative and an employee.
Some of the employees requested a flexible work arrangement, either asking to come in early and leave early three days a week, or to work from home two days a week. Munsch 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 transcript in which a man requested to work from home for childcare-related reasons, 69.7 percent said they would be “likely” or “very likely” to approve the request, compared to 56.7 percent of those who read the scenario in which a woman made the request.
Almost a quarter — 24.3 percent — found the man to be “extremely likeable,” compared to only three percent who found the woman to be “extremely likeable.”
Only 2.7 percent found the man “not at all” or “not very” committed, yet 15.5 percent found the woman “not at all” or “not very” committed, Munsch reported.
“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 said she fears 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.”
The study also found that “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,” Munsch said.
For example, among those who read a transcript in which an employee asked to work from home two days a week for childcare-related reasons, 63.5 percent said they would be “likely” or “very likely” to grant the request.
However, only 40.7 percent 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.
Munsch said she was surprised by her findings.
“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 feminists and work-family scholars 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.”
She added, however, that employers should not eliminate flexible work arrangements, but 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.”