Labor Rights

Flexible Work Requests Produce “Fatherhood Bonus” and Motherhood Penalty

According to a recent study, men who request flexible work schedules are advantaged over women who make the same requests.

via Shutterstock
via Shutterstock

In the study by Dr. Christin Munsch, an assistant professor of sociology at Furman University in South Carolina, a sample of 646 people between the ages of 18 and 65 living in the United States were asked to read a transcript of a fabricated conversation between an employee and human resources person. During the conversation, the employee either requested flexible work hours or to work from home a few days per week or did not make a request. Participants were then asked how likely they would be to grant the request and to evaluate the employees on their likeability, commitment, dependability, and dedication.

What Dr. Munsch found was a “fatherhood bonus” for men who requested flexible work schedules in order to fulfill child care obligations.

About 70 percent of the participants who read a transcript with a male employee said they would be “likely” or “very likely” to approve his request when it was for child care reasons, compared to only 56.7 percent of those who read the same transcript with a female employee. About 24 percent found the man to be “extremely likeable” compared to only three percent who found the woman “extremely likeable.” Interestingly, only 2.7 percent found the man to be “not at all” or “not very committed,” while 15.5 percent found the woman to be “not at all” or “not very committed.”

“These results demonstrate how cultural notions of parenting influence perceptions of people who request flexible work,” explained Dr. Munsch. “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.”

Whereas men are rewarded at work for trying to help out at home, women continue to be penalized. The reason? Entrenched gender stereotypes. People continue to believe that men will meet their obligations at work – because they are men. In other words, according to Dr. Munsch, “We think, ‘What a great guy.’”

“For a mother, we think there’s no way she can work at home effectively. This goes back to our expectation that motherhood is intensive and that being a mother should be a woman’s number one priority,” Munsch told the Washington Post. “So if she’s working flexibly at home, we expect that she’ll be putting puzzles together with her kids or taking them to the park. We think, ‘How could she possibly get her work done?’ But with a man, we think he’ll just plop his kids in front of the TV and get the job done.”

Dr. Munsch’s study suggests that flexible work schedules – on their own – are not enough to counter gender inequality in the workplace. Without oversight into how these policies are implemented, they may serve to promote gender inequity.

Media Resources: American Sociological Association Press Release 8/18/14; Washington Post 8/18/14; Mashable 8/19/14

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