Gender Bias And Flexible Work Arrangements

On Behalf of | August 22, 2014 | Gender Discrimination, Harassment

As reported by The Washington Post, Christin Munsch, a sociology professor at Furman University, recently presented a study demonstrating that men who request flexible work arrangements are viewed more favorably than women who do the same:

In a survey of nearly 700 people between the ages of 18 and 65, Munsch found that people rated men who ask to work either flexible hours in the office or to work from home twice a week as much more committed to their work, more competent, more worthy of promotion and more likeable than equally qualified women who asked for the same flexibility.

Munsch’s study highlights the counterproductive notions about appropriate gender roles that predominate in many modern workplaces.  As my colleague Kate Mueting recently noted, women, including those who work outside the home, typically continue to bear the majority of household duties.  This trend has engrained itself in the subconscious of many as a role that women ought to occupy.  Consequently, as Munsch demonstrates with her recent study, women are punished by many employers when they seek flexible work arrangements because preconceived notions about gender roles mandate that women should be able to play both parts without seeking flexible work arrangements.  It’s as though women are naturally obligated to bear the majority of household duties while work outside the home is a privilege.

Conversely, men suffer from the opposite, albeit equally misguided, notion that they ought to be the primary breadwinner in a household.  As demonstrated by an earlier study, men who request family leave are viewed less favorably than women who do the same.  Munsch noted this seeming contradiction in her presentation and emphasized that her study focused on men who sought flexible work arrangements but continued to work full-time.  Just as preconceived notions about gender roles disproportionately punish women who seek flexible work arrangements, men are disproportionately punished for reducing their time commitments to their careers in favor of their families or personal lives. As discussed in the Washington Post article, some scholars deem this to be the “threshold effect,” meaning that men who occasionally take on household duties are celebrated while those who do more are viewed negatively.

Both of these notions about appropriate gender roles are damaging for businesses as well as families.  With regard to businesses, the persistence of notions about what men and women should do with their careers and personal lives will increase a company’s exposure to litigation, particularly lawsuits challenging the implementation of flexible work arrangements.  Further, the best performers in professional industries will inevitably leave employers who allow such stereotypes to persist for work places who have attitudes that more accurately reflect the diversity of the modern workforce.  This perspective has been echoed by leading defense litigators and talent consultants alike.

With regard to our families, rigid conceptions about gender roles coerce us to make decisions about the direction of our lives based on broad stereotypes rather than our best interests and the best interests of our families.   Both men and women should be free to choose paths in their personal and professional lives that best suit their individualized circumstances, not a one-size-fits-all family model that so rarely suits us.