Flexible work time. Shared household responsibilities. These are supposed to be the keys to achieving gender equality at work. Egalitarian relationships are supposed to help even out the workload in the domestic sphere, and they’re supposed to help women and men have families while also getting ahead professionally. That’s right, right?
Maybe not. A new study suggests that we should all be skeptical of how egalitarian relationships affect the workplace, because they could be doing much more damage than anticipated. According to sociology professor and study author Christin Munsch, women who place requests for flexible work hours were more likely to be denied than their male counterparts, who tended to be perceived as being more dedicated to their children and their work.
Munsch, who presented her findings at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, provided nearly 650 participants between the ages of 18 and 65 with a transcript that purportedly detailed a conversation between an employee and HR representative. In it, the employee either requested a flexible work arrangement or did not; if there was a request for more flexibility, the employee requested to come in early and leave early three days a week, or to work from home two days a week. The gender of the employee and the reason for the request varied from transcript to transcript, and participants were asked to determine if they would grant the flexible work time. They were also asked to evaluate the employees on several different measures, which varied dramatically:
Among those who read the scenario 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 3 percent who found the woman to be “extremely likeable.” And, 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.
According to Munsch, the difference in perception comes from basic sexism. “These results demonstrate how cultural notions of parenting influence perceptions of people who request flexible work,” she said in a statement. “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.”
Although Munsch postulates that increasingly egalitarian relationships could threaten workplace equality — because men seem to be the ones reaping the social rewards of being good parents — she found that both men and women who requested flexible work time for childcare obligations were viewed in a better light than coworkers who might ask for flex-time for other reasons. The hypothetical parents trying to adjust their schedules to make room for their families had more than a 60 percent chance of having their request approved, contrary to the outcome Munsch expected.
“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,” Munsch 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.” Well, it’s good that childcare is becoming a “legitimate” reason for flextime — but it would be great if it were equally admirable for all parents.