While more and more American employees are asking for flexible work schedules, the women who do so are more likely to be penalized for it, according to new research from Furman University in South Carolina.
Nearly 650 people between the ages of 18 and 65 were shown what they were told was a transcript of an actual conversation in which a company employee asked a member of their human resources department for a more flexible work schedule.
When the employee was a man, 69.7 percent of respondents said they would likely approve his request to either start and leave work a few hours early each day or to work from home two days a week to care for a child. But when the employee in question was a woman, just 56.7 percent said they’d be willing to grant her such a request.
What’s more, while 24.3 percent of people found the male employee to be “extremely likeable,” just 2.7 percent said the female employee was “extremely likeable.” And when asked about the dedication of the employee, less than 3 percent of the survey respondents thought the man was “not at all” or “not very” committed to work, but 15.5 percent said the same about the woman.
"These results demonstrate how cultural notions of parenting influence perceptions of people who request flexible work," Furman University sociology professor Christin Munsch, who conducted the study, said in a release. "Today, we think of women's responsibilities as including paid labor and domestic obligations, but we still regard breadwinning as men's primary responsibility and we feel grateful if men contribute in the realm of child care or to other household tasks."
Furman presented the paper on Monday at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in San Francisco.
In a twist, Munsch also gave respondents transcripts in which the male and female employees asked for the same type of flexible work schedule scenarios, but for reasons unrelated to parenting — they wanted to train for a bicycle race in the afternoons, for example, or to work from home two days a week to lessen their impact on the environment.
She said that "both men and women who requested to work from home or to work atypical hours to take care of a child were viewed as more respectable, likable, committed and worthy of a promotion, and their requests were more supported than those who requested flexible work for reasons unrelated to child care."
Munsch didn’t break down the difference in terms of gender, but found that only 40.7 percent of respondents said they would likely grant the employee’s flexible work request that wasn’t related to child care, versus the 63.5 percent who would likely grant the request if the reason was related to child care.
Munsch wrote in the study that the finding indicated “while much work-family research has focused on the disadvantages faced by workers with children, future research should investigate the ways in which workers with less traditional families may be systematically disadvantaged.”
Countries such as the U.K. and Australia have passed laws allowing employees to ask their companies for flexible work schedules, but the United States doesn’t have any such flextime laws on the books.
President Obama called on federal agencies to offer workers more flexible work schedules at the White House Summit on Work and Families last June, but family-friendly policies such as compulsory paid sick leave or paid maternity or paternity leave have been slow to catch on and aren’t enforced by federal law.
San Francisco became the first city to pass a law mandating paid sick leave in 2006, and has since been followed by Seattle, the District of Columbia, New York City, Jersey City, and Portland, Oregon.
Connecticut has also passed a statewide law guaranteeing paid sick leave, but in terms of guaranteed paid time off for childbirth or otherwise, the U.S. lags behind every other country in the world – alongside Oman and Papua New Guinea – in that it doesn't have a federal law guaranteeing paid parental leave.
The Family Medical Leave Act allows for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a child or family member, and states such as California, Rhode Island and New Jersey do offer some paid family and medical leave, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.