Working women's "absence culture"

An article says women call in sick more often -- but not for the reasons you think.

By Tracy Clark-Flory
November 6, 2007 1:19PM (UTC)
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This morning, a reader sent us a link to a real head scratcher about women's higher absenteeism rates at work. The MSNBC article starts off by declaring: "It's been a perpetual problem: Women tend to call in sick more often than men. But the why -- even though you may think you know the answer -- isn't that clear cut, nor should it be." The article assumes that readers have already concluded that women call in sick more often because they tend to bear more childcare responsibilities than men do, but then -- nyah, nyah! -- tells readers they're wrong, explaining that experts believe there are "many other factors contributing to the high rate among women." After all, absence rates are still higher among childless women.

I nodded my head because it seems very intuitive -- of course there are other reasons. I wiggled in my seat, anticipating a nuanced discussion of the many contributing factors; I waited and wiggled until the very end of the article. Despite the declaration to check your assumptions at the third paragraph, there was only one culprit truly up for discussion: motherhood.


The piece only briefly and abstractly touches on the idea of an "absence culture" among women before returning to its mommy thesis. But at no point does it suggest that cultural attitudes toward sickness make it more acceptable for a woman to call in sick, while men are supposed to hide their sniffles and buck up. As our tipster, Kelli Garcia, suggested in her e-mail: "My guess is that women call in sick more often than men when they are actually sick ... studies that show that women are more likely to go to the doctor when they are sick indirectly support this hypothesis."

The article says that women's higher absence rate costs them their male co-workers' respect; and it reinforces the stereotype of women as weak and family-focused and men as robust and work-minded. But it also seems a basic expression of both men's and women's loyalty to those gendered expectations.

Tracy Clark-Flory

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