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Battling Bias in Flexible-Work Arrangements

New academic research uncovers certain gender biases when it comes to flexible-work arrangements. Can HR level the playing field for workers struggling to strike that delicate balance between work and home?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014
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Despite the results of her recent study, Furman University sociology professor Christin Munsch stresses that she is not out to prove that flexible work-arrangements don't work in promoting gender equality in the workplace.

The 646 participants in Munsch's recent experiment at the Greenville, S.C. university were asked to evaluate what they thought were real employees' flexible-work requests. The scenarios were in fact fictional, but they seemed real enough to draw out old biases that Americans hold onto hard -- about both gender roles and work-life arrangements in general. Overall, participants viewed fictional employees requesting flexible-work arrangements more negatively than those who didn't make such requests.

The bias over gender was also apparent. When experiment participants were presented with the scenario involving a male worker asking for flexible work arrangements for child care, they looked more favorably on them -- in what Munsch calls the "fatherhood bonus." About 70 percent said they would be "likely" or "very likely" to approve the request. Nearly one in four found the fictional male employee to be "extremely likeable." And only 2.7 percent responded that the man seemed "not at all" or "not very" committed to work.

Compare those numbers when the same scenario involved a woman: 57 percent of the respondents said they would be "likely" or "very likely" to approve the request; only 3 percent said the woman was "extremely likeable"; and 15.5 percent called the woman "not at all" or "not very" committed.

The fatherhood bonus is rooted in "cultural notions of what it means to be a good mother and what it means to be a good father," says Munsch. In other words, the man is the Leave It to Beaver-type breadwinner and the mother is the primary caregiver. When the father asks to be hands-on with childcare, this logic goes, he ought to be applauded and supported.

Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of New York-based nonprofit Families and Work Institute, sees these "die hard" traditional views manifest themselves in the workplace in two typical ways. For men, it's less-expected of them to request flexible-work arrangements, so when they do ask, they're granted with a pat on the back. For women, employers are "worried" about them asking for work/life balance before they even do. For Galinsky, seeing these deep-seated impressions emerge in Munsch's experiment is no surprise.

Munsch's biggest surprise in her research actually had nothing to do with gender, she says.

When respondents were instructed to consider a worker -- man or woman -- asking to work from home two days a week for childcare reasons, nearly two out of three said they would "likely" or "very likely" permit it. But when that request came from a worker who was not seeking more time with the kids, but instead to reduce his or her carbon footprint, only four out of 10 responded similarly.

Luckily for workers, it's not the biased people in Munsch's surveys determining flexible work arrangements. It appears employees are driving employers' policies. In particular, young male workers are seeking to spend more time with their families. Employers are adapting, Galinksy says.

Indeed, research from New York-based Catalyst, another organization that specializes in analyzing and tackling gender-based issues in the workplace, suggests that employers have already adapted -- and that both men and women are benefitting. In its 2014 report, The Great Debate: Flexibility vs. Face Time, Catalyst found that nearly four out of five respondents said their companies offered some form of flexible-work arrangements.

Old-fashioned perceptions aren't stopping workers from taking advantage of  flex-work policies, says Catalyst's Director of Research Anna Beninger.

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"We see a massive percentage ... a majority of people are doing this," she says. In Catalyst's aforementioned survey, 64 percent of both women and men reported using flexible arrival and departure frequently, very frequently or always in their careers.

It's up to employers to keep up by allowing flexible-work arrangements -- to retain and attract top talent and allow them to achieve their maximum potential, Beninger stresses -- and create workplace cultures in which employees feel comfortable using them. Best practices for the latter include senior leaders modeling behavior (in other words, using flexible policies themselves); placing formal policies on the books; establishing employee resource groups so that workers who use the arrangements are visible and supported; and de-emphasizing the importance of "face time" in the office. As for the best practice for how employees should request flexible work arrangements, Catalyst's research points to training managers and allowing workers to have one-on-one conversations with them to request and design arrangements.

Overall, Munsch agrees: Companies ought to implement policies to prevent biases from negatively impacting flexible-work arrangements. She says she still believes in the power of flexible-work arrangements to provide the necessary space for women to aspire and succeed work and take care of their personal responsibilities too, as well as to allow men to take on more homebound duties.

The guiding principle, she says, is to shield workers' from traditional biases by taking the decision to grant or not grant work arrangements out of the hands of individuals who may consciously or unconsciously possess them.

"The punchline here is not to do away with flexible work," she says. "There needs to be some sort of policy in place to evaluate flex-time requests that is not based on what an individual manager thinks."

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