There’s a dirty little secret when it comes to work flexibility—not all flexible work requests are treated equally.
In his Harvard Business Review piece “Everyone Likes Flex Time But We Punish Women Who Use It,” management professor David Burkus cites two workplace studies that demonstrate the inequality that occurs when men and women request flex. The first study, conducted by Christin Munsch of Furman University, found that working women are often viewed negatively—and unfairly—when they ask for a flexible work arrangement. The 600 respondents to their survey viewed transcripts of what they thought were real conversations between human resource reps and employees (male and female) requesting flex. They were then asked to rank the employees based on factors such as dependability, dedication to the job, and how likely they would be to grant the worker’s flex request. Almost three-quarters (70 percent) of participants were likely to grant the male worker’s flex request. That number drops to slightly more than half (57 percent) for female workers.
A separate 2016 study conducted by researchers Yvonne Lott and Heejung Chung in Germany found additional inequalities. Studying three sets of employees—ones who worked normal hours, those with set flexible schedules, and those who set their own hours—the researchers found that male workers with flexibility outearned their female counterparts. Men with completely flexible schedules earned 6,700 euros more than men who had set schedules, but working women with the same flex earned only 2,000 euros more than women with traditional set schedules. This disparity only adds to the ever-present (and painful) gender wage gap.
Burkus proposes that working men may be granted flexibility in response to increased productivity, which they then use to create an even stronger productive schedule, whereas women are perceived to be using their flex not for more output, but to tend to family needs. In other words, working women are perceived to use flexible work arrangements not to boost the company’s bottom line, but to focus on family. This false assumption then causes negative perceptions when it comes to considering a female worker’s flexible work request and subsequent earnings potential.
And that’s why flex requests should be reason-blind. Rather than assume what a worker will do with his or her flex, companies should consider the worker’s productivity level and job requirements as well as workplace efficiencies and worker retention when contemplating the request. Similarly, employees making a request for flex should focus on the business benefits of the arrangements, rather than their personal reasons for desiring flex. Countless studies have shown that both productivity and company loyalty increase when workers have flexible work arrangements, resulting in decreased employee turnover and cost savings. Companies need flex just as much as their workers—both male and female—do.
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