One would think flexible working is an indisputable benefit to the modern workplace. In recent years commentators and experts have lined up to regale the future workplace that places no heed on when or where work gets done. That flexible working is still a relatively minor element of our office cultures however underlines that perceptions on this can often undermine the best intentions.
Earlier in the summer for instance I wrote about some research that showed that despite flexible working having a positive impact upon both productivity and engagement, the test organization dropped the facility as soon as the research had ended.
Another study underlined this stigma, highlighting as it did that academics who engaged in flexible work practices saw their career suffer as a result.
A third study, published recently, suggests that the issue is even more complex than originally thought, as there may be differences in how people perceive flexible workers depending on their gender.
The researchers tested the reactions of colleagues to both male and female flexible workers, with some disturbing findings. When men requested to work flexibly in order to better care for their child, they were actually perceived more highly than was previously the case, and certainly more highly than their female colleagues who made the same request.
Participants in the study were shown a fictional transcript between an employee and a HR manager whereby the employee requested flexible working (or not in the control group). These flexible arrangements ranged from arriving early to work, leaving early or working from home. The gender of the employee was also alternated.
The participants were asked to step into the managers shoes and say whether they would grant the request, whilst also rating the employee on various traits such as their commitment, dependability and dedication.
The results revealed that nearly 70% of requests would be approved if a man made them, whereas this dropped to just over 55% when the request came from a female employee. This was reflected in the character analysis, with male employees deemed way more likeable than their female peers, and also considerably more committed.
“These results demonstrate how cultural notions of parenting influence perceptions of people who request flexible work,” the researchers said. “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 childcare or to other household tasks.”
This is especially worrying as marriages become more egalitarian. In an environment where both man and woman contribute equally to the family operations, it is the man that would gain in the workplace. Gender equality at home would perpetuate gender inequality at work.
It also emerged that flexible work requests were much more likely to be granted when the reasoning was child related rather than simply to be more productive and stress-free, which shows just how far perceptions around this issue still have to come. For instance, requests for flexible work that were linked to reducing the commute time were approved nearly 25% less often than those made with childcare in mind.
If flexible work is to truly take off, it seems there are quite a few more hurdles to overcome yet.