Getting ahead by working from home?

A Simmons School of Management study says women are capitalizing on -- and benefiting from -- flexible work arrangements.

By Catherine Price
Published January 16, 2007 9:49PM (EST)

Anyone remember that incendiary article in the New York Times a year or so ago that talked about the supposedly increasing number of highly educated women planning to drop out of the workforce to raise children? (Here's a Broadsheet mention.) It raised a huge uproar, writer Louise Story's reporting methods were questioned, and the ensuing outrage proved that even if exaggerated, the issues Story brought up in the piece touched a pretty sensitive nerve.

Well, here's the flip side: A study (PDF) from the Simmons School of Management, in collaboration with Hewlett-Packard, asserts that instead of "opting out" of the workforce, many women are actually helping to redefine it. To do so, they're using something the authors call FWAs -- "flexible work arrangements."

The study, reported on here by KSBI-TV, assumes that in America the traditional work paradigm has been one that says "work is primary" -- that is, employees commit themselves for life to a particular company in exchange for stability. "Created by and for the white, male, middle and upper-middle managers building corporations post-WWII, this paradigm was founded on two realities of the time," the study asserts. "Men could make work primary because their wives were home taking care of family duties, and organizations existed in a fairly stable marketplace. Those realities are gone."

Now that women can no longer be depended on to stay at home, and corporate bankruptcies and instability mean that employees can no longer rely on lifelong job security, the paradigm is shifting. And according to the study, women are at the vanguard of defining how that shift should go. What's more, the study asserts that instead of losing pay or opportunity for demanding flexibility, women's careers are just as successful as those of their male peers.

According to the study, the key is to encourage America to evolve from this "work is primary" paradigm to one the authors call "self-employed," in which employers "think of their careers as a series of projects" where "employees, acting as 'free agents,' are 'in business for themselves,' performing work that the organization has 'outsourced' to them." This self-employed model has a lot more opportunity for so-called FWAs, like telecommuting, flexible work hours and limited travel -- options that are particularly important for anyone trying to balance work and family.

So here's the cool thing: Whereas in 2005 a similar study showed workers getting penalized, in earning potential and reentry, for using FWAs (which was particularly bad news for women, since they tend to use FWAs more), the current study found women using FWAs "to stay in the labor force versus to opt out, and earn solid salaries while doing so."

Sure, we still have a long way to go, but this study touches on what I think is the most important problem facing everyone -- male or female -- who's trying to balance career and children: The work paradigm, as it has stood for the past century, has been designed for work only, with no room for the complexities and challenges of trying to simultaneously raise a family. It's like trying to stuff both your legs through one side of your jeans -- sure, if you try hard enough you can probably do it, but you're probably going to rip your favorite pair of pants.

The real challenge facing women (or men) who are trying to balance work and family -- i.e., to "have it all" -- is to redefine the traditional workplace paradigm to accommodate both. This study suggests that even if we're not there yet, progress is being made.

Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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