Workplace flexibility – not just a mother’s problem?

Take a moment to consider the statement below:

At the place where you work, employees who ask for time off for personal or family reasons or try to arrange different schedules or hours to meet their personal or family needs are less likely to get ahead in their jobs or careers

Do you agree or disagree?

This statement defines something called ‘flexibility bias’ – employees being penalised at work for asking for time off or flexible hours to take care of personal or family matters – which is the subject of a recent study carried out by researchers in the US.

Much of the focus of previous research into flexibility bias has been into the effects on mothers, as traditionally they have been the employees most likely to need to make adjustments to their work to take care of children – for example, working from home, flexi-time, job sharing, compressed hours, or moving to part-time hours.

And to avoid any doubt, this bias is real – for example, women who use flexible working arrangements are perceived to be less committed to the organisation and their work, have slower wage growth, and receive fewer promotions than those who do not.

But this recent study on flexibility bias, led by Linsey Trimble O’Connor of California State University Channel Islands, and Erin Cech of University of Michigan, revealed a surprising effect.

They found that the perception of flexibility bias has a negative impact on all workers, not just mothers. And this is the case even amongst the stereotypical “ideal worker”: a man with no family commitments.

What the study found

Assistant Professors O’Connor and Cech analysed the results of the 2008 National Study of Changing Workforce, a large representative survey of over 3,000 American employees. The survey asked participants to state to what extent they agreed with a range of statements about their employment. The statement you read at the top of this article was used to measure the perception of flexibility bias, and other statements were used as measures of their job satisfaction, perception of work-life balance, and intention to look for work elsewhere.

They found that all workers who perceived there was flexibility bias in their workplace are less satisfied and engaged in their work, feel they have poorer work-life balance, and are more likely to consider leaving their job – regardless of whether or not they have used flexible work arrangements themselves.

The researchers were particularly interested in the opinions of men with no caregiving responsibilities – who are traditionally stereotyped as the “ideal worker” and believed to be the most dedicated and productive employees.

Far from being indifferent to the plight of their colleagues who need flexible working arrangements, “ideal workers” who think that these colleagues are treated unfairly are likely to consider looking for work elsewhere.

In addition, the researchers demonstrated that these results are not just caused by a few disgruntled employees who have been directly affected by unfair treatment. The relationship between perceived flexibility bias and reduced job satisfaction holds true, even after taking into account whether or not the participants have personally been on the receiving end of discrimination.

Why flexibility bias is bad for everyone

O’Connor and Cech describe three possible reasons why the perception of flexibility bias negatively affects all workers, not just those who ask for flexible work arrangements.

Firstly, all workers, even the childless, sometimes needs a bit of flexibility in their work schedule – for example, to let the plumber in to fix a boiler, go see the dentist, or attend a funeral. If they believe that colleagues are being penalised for asking for a more formal flexible working arrangement, they might fear that they too will pay the price for asking for some time off when they need it.

Secondly, employees feel happier in organisations that care about their well-being and their non-work life. But if they think or know that colleagues are unfairly treated for trying to juggle family commitments with work, it gives the very opposite impression, of a workplace that doesn’t care about its workers. And who wants to work there?

Finally, there may just be a sense of solidarity with fellow employees who have been ill-treated – why would you be happy working somewhere where your colleagues and friends have been treated poorly?

Time to change

I think the researchers are absolutely right to conclude from this study that flexibility bias is not just a mother’s problem. It’s clear from this study that a negative attitude towards women who take flexible working arrangements affects everyone.

And not only is it bad for morale, it’s bad for business too, once unhappy employees start leaving and the costs of recruiting replacements start rolling in.

Workplace cultures and attitudes are changing all the time. With more mothers returning back to work after pregnancy, more fathers taking up childcare responsibilities, and employees more aware of the opportunities and benefits of flexible work, I highly doubt that men without family responsibilities represent the “ideal worker” any more. In fact, the researchers noted that in the National Survey of Changing Workplace (from which they drew their data), only 10% of the participants actually represent this outdated concept.

I personally don’t think there is such a thing as a man completely and utterly devoted to work, and if there is, should he really be the employee to which all others are compared? The quicker we all dispense with this outdated stereotype, the better for everyone.

The researchers conclude their article by calling for recognition that workplace flexibility should not just be seen as a “mother’s problem”. They put forward an idea that flexibility bias may hit mothers particularly hard, but that perhaps mothers in this regard serve as “the canary in the coalmine”, indicating something toxic about the whole work environment. Far from just aiming to solve “mother’s problems”, it’s important that businesses also look wider to see whether work practises and culture could change for the benefit of all employees.


Do you think there is bias towards employees who ask for flexible work arrangements at your workplace? Share your experiences in the comments below, on Twitter or on Facebook.

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