Mothers continue to face a significant gap when it comes to employment and wages. But a new study shows that flexibility can help to alleviate that problem.

The study, “‘Family-Friendly’ Jobs and Motherhood Pay Penalties: The Impact of Flexible Work Arrangements Across the Educational Spectrum,” was published recently in the journal Work and Occupations. Study authors Sylvia Fuller and C. Elizabeth Hirsh, both associate professors of sociology at the University of British Columbia, discovered that access to flexible work options—like telecommuting or shifting work hours—improves wages for mothers, especially when they have a university education.

According to an article in ScienceDaily, the researchers used data from Statistics Canada’s “Workplace and Employee Survey,” which was collected from 1999 to 2005. Of the 20,879 women in the sample, 58% were mothers between the ages of 24 and 44.

Fuller and Hirsh found that flexible hours reduced the motherhood wage gap for that group by 68%, and the opportunity to work from home reduced the wage gap by 58%.

The key to reducing the wage gap seems to lie with the kinds of jobs working mothers can get when they are allowed some flexibility. In particular, flex appears to help them find employment in higher-paying firms.

“Our findings suggest that, when companies allow work to be organized in a flexible way, they’re less worried about hiring mothers,” Fuller says in the ScienceDaily article. “Not only does flexibility make it easier for mothers to do well in their jobs, but it also alleviates concern from the employer that they’ll be able to.”

The researchers also note the impact of flexibility on mothers who have different education levels, whether that is a high school diploma, some non-university post-secondary education, a bachelor’s degree, or a post-graduate degree.

“For women with postgraduate degrees, flexible hours made the biggest difference,” the ScienceDaily article says. “Without flexible hours, such mothers earned 7% less than childless women. Among those working flexible hours, however, mothers earned 12% more compared to childless women who also had flexible hours.”

In an article for Work in Progress, Fuller and Hirsh write that this again speaks to the level of jobs those working mothers may have.

“This suggests that it is the opportunity to better accommodate a more demanding paid work load, characteristic of managerial and professional jobs, that matters most in this case,” they write. “However, highly educated women do not benefit most from all forms of flexibility. Indeed, substituting working hours at home for time in the workplace dramatically increases motherhood wage gaps for the most educated.

“This is particularly interesting in light of the fact that childless women in this educational group are equally likely to take advantage of this type of flexibility, which should minimize its stigmatizing association with work-family accommodation. The fact that we find penalties for this type of working at home for highly educated mothers suggests that face time remains a key indicator—whether real or perceived—of productivity in high-status jobs.”

In other words, flexibility is helpful for working mothers, but just offering flex isn’t enough. Companies need to be aware of all of their policies and how they could impact the wage gap.

“Overall, our findings suggest that flexible work arrangements are a promising route to not only improving work-life balance, but also easing some of the disadvantages faced by mothers in the workplace,” Fuller and Hirsh write. “However, they also highlight the importance of remaining attentive to women’s social class positioning, and not presuming that particular ‘family friendly’ work arrangements will have consistent implications for all women in all jobs.

“Nevertheless, our research underscores the importance of altering workplace arrangements—including access to flexibility—to better enhance mothers’ work-family facilitation and chip away at glaring motherhood pay penalties.”

And the great news for businesses is that flexibility is good for all employees, whether or not they are working mothers, Fuller says in a Richmond News article. “Flexibility might not be possible for all jobs, but it is appreciated by workers generally and makes good business sense in terms of attracting and retaining highly qualified employees.”

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