Managers tend to believe that women who ask for flexible working hours are more likely than men to use the time for personal, rather than professional, reasons, said the author of a new study that found that bosses are more likely to give flextime to men.
“Women employees are suspected of divided loyalties between home and work and seen as more likely to use time off for personal, rather than career, reasons—no matter what justification the women give for their requests,” said Jennifer Glass, co-author of “Ask and Ye Shall Receive? The Dynamics of Employer-Provided Flexible Work Options and the Need for Public Policy,” which appeared in the June issue of the Journal of Social Issues. “We were surprised that status and reason made no difference in the strength of the gender difference, which shows you how strong the distrust of women workers actually is among ordinary managers.”
Glass, a University of Texas sociology professor, wrote the study with Victoria Brescoll, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management. The women gauged how 76 managers reacted to flextime requests of hourly-wage pharmacy clerks and higher-status chief pharmacists. The employees (male and female) requested flextime for either family care or professional development.
The researchers found that men in high-status, non-hourly positions who said they wanted to advance their careers were most likely to be granted a compressed work schedule. Women in similar scenarios seeking flextime were far less likely to get it.
Meanwhile, men in low-status careers who asked for family flex time were more likely to have their requests approved than women in like situations.
There was no difference between female and male bosses’ reactions.
“Both male and female managers discriminated against women employees and favored the high-status males,” Glass said. “It’s not just male managers who see female employees as less deserving of accommodation.”
Many managers assume that when women ask for flextime, they will begin a downward spiral out of the workplace, but that men who make this request are actually demonstrating commitment to their jobs, explained Ken Matos, research director at the New York-based Families and Work Institute.
“There definitely is a gender bias among managers,” said Matos, who added that this bias tends to reflect antiquated stereotypes about men’s and women’s family roles. “If you still hold a nuclear-family perspective, men who are concerned about their families will go to work; so their commitment to family can be retranslated into more commitment to work. Men display love for families by working harder and more. The assumption with women is that the moment they step away from their desk, it’s the beginning of them walking out the door. These stereotypes don’t describe the realities of people’s lives.”
Glass noted that the higher a worker’s status, the more likely a supervisor is to trust and identify with the employee and, thus, to grant him or her flextime.
“The manager making the decision sees a person like him or herself who has proven themselves loyal to the firm by being given a position of trust,” Glass said. “Therefore, they must not be scamming the system or trying to exploit their employer.”
Matos said it’s ironic that the study found that low-status women were least likely to be granted flextime, as such employees typically are most in need of flexible schedules. He said this finding reflects managers’ assumptions that flextime should be “earned.”
“There’s a managerial bias toward the lowest-level people that overlaps with gender,” he said. “The assumption is that low-wage employees are unreliable, which feeds into our meritocracy mythology that if you’re at the bottom, you’ve earned being at the bottom, and if you’re at the top, you’ve earned being at the top—and that the system had nothing to do with it.”
Matos said the report includes a notable finding that’s overshadowed by the debate about whether men or women get more flextime—namely, that “men were more likely to believe they wouldn’t get flex time, so they were less likely to ask for it.”
In their experiment, Glass and Brescoll asked 159 female and 84 male employees to estimate how likely they thought it was that a flextime request would be approved. Female employees seeking flexible work schedules in order to care for family tended to believe that their requests would be granted; but, in fact, that wasn’t the case. Men were pessimistic when asking for flextime for family-care reasons because they expected they would be stigmatized and get backlash from bosses.
Glass said the study reveals a need for policy regulation. She noted that Great Britain, Canada and the state of Vermont have right-to-ask laws that encourage employers to consider flexibility requests from caregiving employees and that protect those workers from retaliation for asking.
“It has worked well in other English-speaking countries similar to ours,” Glass said, noting that employers in these regions can deny flextime requests but must make a formal business case for why they can’t grant them.
“It turns out, in most instances there is no business case for denial,” she said.
Matos said HR managers should require supervisors to clearly articulate why they denied a flextime request.
“Have them write it out in an e-mail that they’d send to that employee,” he said. “If they balk at writing a specific explanation, examine with them why they aren’t giving the flextime, because if they can’t articulate the reason the employee shouldn’t get it, they’re probably wandering off into something they know is not quite kosher. That’s where you usually unearth things like, ‘I feel anxious because they might be doing something else,’ or ‘I don’t trust them.’ ”
Matos said HR managers should also train supervisors to view flextime as a strategy for getting work done, not as a reward for past accomplishments.
“A lot of managers still ask themselves, ‘Do I have faith you are reliable and have done all the things you need to do to be granted flexibility?’ But they don’t understand that a lot of times flexibility is what’s required to make the employee reliable and capable, because it will remove work-life conflicts that person has.”
Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.