08.11.134:45 AM ET

Mothers Least Likely to be Given Flexible Work Schedules

In the age of “Lean In” and “Having It All,” why are women still getting a bad rap for wanting flexible work schedules?

You’d think flexible work schedules would be a no-brainer for women with children or elderly parents. What boss would protest against a woman who wants to be home a day or two to greet her kids when they get home from school or take her mom to a doctor appointment—without having to waste time commuting or worrying? As it turns out, it’s harder than you’d think.

Women employed in low-status jobs who need childcare are among the least likely to be granted flexible work schedules, according to “The Flexibility Stigma,” a June special issue of the Journal of Social Issues. Men in high-status positions are the most likely to be given flextime—particularly if the request is for career advancement reasons.

Even though definitions of flextime vary by industry, according to Yale researcher Victoria L. Brescoll, it’s simply a shift in the typical 40-hour work week—whether that means working four longer days or moving hours around the normal 9-5 schedule. “It’s women in particular that have to ask a lot more for these reasons than men, because they have the burden of responsibility for child care and elder care more than men do,” she says.

Brescoll’s study, Ask and Ye Shall Receive? The Dynamics of Employer-Provided Flexible Work Options and the Need for Public Policy, centered on two main experiments. Brescoll and her co-authors wanted to take a gender-neutral profession, so they chose pharmacology, she says. In the first study, researchers gauged how 76 managers reacted to flextime requests of hourly-wage pharmacy clerks and higher-status chief pharmacists. The employees—both male and female—requested flextime for either family care or professional development reasons. Researchers found that men in high-status, non-hourly positions who expressed desire to better their careers were most likely to be granted a compressed work schedule.

But managers don’t seem to recognize the drawbacks of withholding flextime or that there could be a beneficial domino effect down the road for low-wage female workers if they were granted flextime. “We see a good worker as a fully devoted worker, somebody who is putting in a lot of face time, no matter what the cost is to themselves,” Brescoll says. “And we don’t see the cost to the employer when people are doing that. They’re neglecting other aspects of their life that would actually make them a better worker. We still have blinders on to that.”

Interestingly, the study found that there was no difference between female and male bosses’ reactions. Brescoll says that this holds true in the case of Yahoo! CEO Marisa Mayer’s ban on working from home. People paid a lot of attention to it and wondered why she didn’t show more sympathy—just because she’s a female leader, Brescoll says.

Brescoll’s second study asked 159 female and 84 male employees to estimate how likely they thought a flextime request would be approved. Female employees looking for flexible work schedules because of family care reasons really thought their requests would be granted, but in fact that wasn’t the case, Brescoll says. And men were pessimistic when asking for family care reasons, because they anticipated stigma and backlash from bosses.

Joan C. Williams, who spearheaded “The Flexibility Stigma” issue, is not surprised by these findings. Gender bias prevents people from expressing their desire for flexible work schedules, says Williams, who is a distinguished professor and the director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings, College of the Law. She says the flexibility stigma is a part of “maternal wall bias,” which is brought about simply by being a mother—and it’s 10 times larger than bias based on gender alone.

“For women, it’s the fear of triggering the strongest form of gender bias against women—maternal wall. And for men, there’s fear of triggering a stigma on the grounds they’re too feminine,” Williams says. “So both forms of stigma are driven by gender bias, which means that allowing the flexibility stigma to affect people’s careers is a potential violation of federal anti-discrimination law.”

So amid Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s “lean in” movement and the “can women have it all?” debates discussed ad nauseam, how can mothers in lower-wage or hourly jobs actually get ahead—particularly if they are shunned from flexible work schedules?

Some ways might be through work mentors or structured childcare programs, says Kezia Willingham at xoJane. As a single mom, she says she knows that people who work in lower-wage jobs are extremely ambitious, but they don’t have the luxury of “leaning in” when they are simply trying to make ends meet and spend as much time as possible with their children.

But a study in the Harvard Business Review suggests that encouraging more face time instead of flextime gives women better access to prove themselves. “So while men and women are equally likely to use some flex work options, women are more likely to telecommute, which could unintentionally be creating a talent drain in companies by denying these women access to influential networks, senior-level sponsors, and advancement opportunities,” according to HBR. However, the same study found that women working at companies without flexible work options were “more likely to downsize their aspirations.”

Employees are apparently in a tug-of-war with flextime. They need it, but don’t want to seem weak to their bosses. And it’s obviously important to women to have—particularly because 40 percent of mothers are now the primary breadwinners of their households.

We shouldn’t be asking if women can achieve “work-life balance,” Williams says, since that implies that women must make tough choices within the status quo of the current system.

“If high-level jobs still designed around that old-fashioned definition of who’s an ideal worker, work-life balance will be elusive for men and for women,” Williams says. “So it’s really important not to naturalize the deal that employees are being handed and say women can’t have it all, because that just leaves in place structures that have been shaped over decades by very out-of-date, out-of-touch assumptions … that build in the traditional breadwinner-housewife role that is not the face of today’s workforce.”