Women Seeking Flextime Pay Heavier Price Than Men

a mom working with baby
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SAN FRANCISCO — Women may be penalized when they ask for flexible work situations, new research suggests.

Women who ask to work from home or work nontraditional hours to fulfill family responsibilities are less likely than men to have their requests approved, according to a study presented here last week at the 109th annual American Sociological Association meeting. Those women are also viewed as less likable and committed to their jobs, the study found.

The results suggest that simply championing flexible work situations to improve work-life balance won't reduce the gender pay gap, said study researcher Christin Munsch, a social psychologist at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. [Top 12 Warrior Moms in History]

Persistent pay gap

In 2012, women earned 81 cents for every dollar men earned, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Researchers have documented a "motherhood penalty," where working moms are systematically discriminated against in their jobs. Men get a "fatherhood bonus," typically being seen as more responsible and committed to work after having a baby, Munsch wrote in the paper. And men who voluntarily take care of their children while still working full-time may earn a "progressive merit badge," Munsch wrote in her paper.

Dozens of studies have shown that women typically bear the brunt of domestic and child care responsibilities. Men are more often free to go on that last-minute business trip or to stay long hours in the office, Munsch told Live Science.

In this landscape, some researchers have pushed flexible work arrangements, in which women can work nontraditional hours or from home, as potential solutions to help women balance these competing responsibilities and level the gender wage gap by allowing them to stay in the workplace, Munsch said.

Flextime arrangements

To see how such flextime arrangements are perceived, Munsch surveyed 646 people, ages 18 to 65, on the crowdsourcing work marketplace Mechanical Turk. The participants were asked to read transcripts of work scenarios (they were told they were real), then asked to rate the employee on several factors and say whether they would grant the request.

In the transcripts, a worker —"Kevin" or "Karen" — asked their human resources representative if they could either come in and leave early three days a week, or to work from home two days a week. The fictional workers requesting the arrangement either cited child care needs, such as picking up a school-age child from the bus, or said they wanted to reduce their carbon footprint or train for an endurance cycling race.

Requesting flextime for family reasons was viewed more positively than for the other reasons. Overall, 69.7 percent of the participants said they would approve the child care flextime requests from men, while just 56.7 percent would grant requests from women. About 24.3 percent found the men to be "extremely likable," compared with just 3 percent who said the same about the women. And only 2.7 percent expressed doubts about the men's commitment to work, compared with 15 percent for women.

That may be because people imagine very different scenarios for men versus women, Munsch pointed out.

People think women should be fully engaged with their kids if they're at home — taking them to science museums or playing with them or helping them with schoolwork, Munsch told Live Science. "Whereas, men, the idea that gets conjured up in people's minds' eyes is that they'll be monitoring sleeping children," or will "plop them in front of the TV while still getting their work done," Munsch said.

No panacea

The findings suggest women are viewed more negatively when they ask for flexible work arrangements, and that on its own, flextime could potentially enhance gender inequality in the workplace, she said

Still, flextime is good for workers and families, and there are ways that companies can minimize the effect of these gender biases, Munsch said.

Companies can move toward consistent policies that are applied automatically in certain situations or circumstances, rather than using the gut instincts of a boss to vet flex-work arrangements, she said.

When being evaluated for performance or promotion, companies should also rely on more objective criteria, such as hours worked or papers written, she said.

"The more objective the criteria, the less likely these biases are to sneak in," she said.

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Tia Ghose
Managing Editor

Tia is the managing editor and was previously a senior writer for Live Science. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Wired.com and other outlets. She holds a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington, a graduate certificate in science writing from UC Santa Cruz and a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Tia was part of a team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that published the Empty Cradles series on preterm births, which won multiple awards, including the 2012 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.