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Is the ideal dad an ideal worker?
Despite influx of flexible work options, researchers find stigma against dads who use flexibility policies
A glimpse down the Father’s Day greeting card aisle shows the ideal dad as a tie-loving, backyard barbeque grill master or golfer. Despite this image, many of today's dads are increasingly involved in day-to-day activities like driving kids to school or reading bedtime stories. Indeed, survey data reveals that fathers today spend nearly three times as many hours on childcare as their 1965 counterparts. And it seems that dad’s family involvement is not without personal cost. Stress about how to manage family and work is now a shared concern with mothers.
Dads trying to fill a dual role as worker and caregiver by seeking out flexible work arrangements suffer from negative stereotypes and career penalties. Surprisingly, the penalties exist even at companies offering formal flexibility policies. While the motherhood penalty is now widely understood, new research sheds light on how these dynamics affect working dads.
This "flexibility stigma"—meaning the bias workers face from coworkers and employers when they signal the need for any flexible work arrangement—will be revealed in a special issue of the “Journal of Social Issues,” to be published later this month. The editors of the JSI special issue, including Stanford sociologist and Clayman Institute Director Shelley Correll and UC Hastings Law Professor Joan Williams, brought together top scholars to unveil the cultural forces keeping workers from seeking flexible work arrangements.
The "flexibility stigma" refers to the bias workers face from coworkers and employers when they signal the need for any flexible work arrangement.
According to Correll, an increasing number of organizations provide formal flexibility policies, but few workers actually take advantage of them. One reason is that workers worry about hurting their careers.
Research from the JSI special issue shows that these fears are well founded. One study finds that workers who take a career break or temporary reduction in hours for family reasons suffer a pay penalty.
Further, it seems that dads who seek flexible work arrangements suffer even worse consequences than moms. One study shows that dads who seek part-time schedules for childcare face harsher character judgments relative to moms. In another study, dads with caregiving responsibility report more co-worker harassment than mothers or childless colleagues do.
Dads who use flex policies are not good workers… or “real men”
What is behind the stigmatization of workers—dads in particular—who use flex? According to Williams, Americans’ belief in the “work devotion schema” is partly to blame. Williams defines the work devotion schema as the widely-held belief that “work demands and deserves undivided and intensive allegiance.” The work devotion schema suggests that work is, and should be, the central focus of life.
Men are particularly vulnerable to the flexibility stigma. We equate being a good father with being a good provider. If a man seems less-than-devoted to his job, he is seen as not fulfilling his role as breadwinner.
The belief is built into company practices and policies and "includes an expectation that employees will minimize time spent on caregiving or risk stigma and career penalties." Use of formal flexibility polices —by men or women—challenges the work devotion schema and sends a clear message to employers that flex users are uncommitted and lack work ethic.
Men are particularly vulnerable to the flexibility stigma. We tend to equate being a good father with being a good provider. Therefore, if a man seems less-than-devoted to his job, he is seen as not fulfilling his role as breadwinner. Researchers explain that there is a sense that “a man who makes caregiving responsibilities salient on the job is less of a man.”
The flexibility stigma is especially powerful for blue-collar and low-income men
Williams is quick to point out that the flexibility stigma can work differently for different dads, depending on socioeconomic background. In professional and managerial workplaces, men prove their masculinity through working brutally long days. Previous research shows that “working long hours is seen as a way of turning pencil pushing or computer keyboarding into a manly test of physical endurance.” When professional or managerial men take a career break, work part-time, or are unwilling—or unable—to work extreme hours, not only is their work ethic called into question, so is their manhood.
One businessman in Oregon addressed this challenge by starting his own company. Working independently felt manly, and it also gave him more flexibility. But this solution may not be available to everyone.
Men who work in blue-collar or low-wage jobs are also expected to put work first, according to Williams. “’Real men,’ she explains, “are defined by their amount of power over their own and their families’ lives.” Blue-collar and low-wage men have less power and control in the workplace than their more privileged counterparts, and so their masculine identities may already be in question. For this reason, blue-collar and low-wage men are especially likely to run up against the flexibility stigma when they seek out flexible work arrangements to care for children.
The result? Blue-collar and low-wage men go to great lengths to hide their caregiving responsibilities and face harassment and teasing when coworkers and employers find out about their family responsibilities.
Blue-collar and low-wage men are especially likely to run up against the flexibility stigma when they seek out flexible work arrangements to care for children.
The flexibility stigma is so strong for blue-collar and low-wage workers that some would rather be terminated for insubordination than confess to having childcare responsibilities or needing a flexible work arrangement. Take, for example, the case of a man who worked at an agricultural supply company. Because of his childcare responsibilities, he refused to work two required hours of overtime. When his employer asked him why he could not work the extra hours, he replied, “none of your business” rather than admitting the real reason. Ultimately, this man was fired.
Workplace flexibility can be a win-win
Flexibility policies could provide needed relief for parents. According to the PEW Research Center, half of working parents with children under the age of 18 struggle to balance their work and family responsibilities.
Flexibility is good for business too, according to Correll. “Workers increasingly list flexibility as one of the most important criteria when selecting a job. Companies have long known that offering flexible workplace arrangements is important for retaining women, but young men are just as likely as young women to value flexibility.”
For Correll and Williams, studying the contours of this stigma is the key to understanding the slow uptake of flexibility in the workplace and may provide insights into how policies can be redesigned to better serve workers and companies. Correll suggests that one way to lessen the flexibility stigma would be to design policies that automatically include everyone—rather than only those workers who need different arrangements.
Examples of these policies include Results Oriented Work Environment (ROWE) and Predictable Time Off (PTO), implemented at Best Buy and Boston Consulting Group, respectively. Both these initiatives allow all workers to make changes to their schedules that help them better manage work and personal responsibilities. These initiatives, and others like them, may hold the key to reducing the flex stigma.
When Father’s Day greeting cards begin to feature telecommuting dads, we’ll know Americans have embraced the men who want to work flexible work arrangements. In the meantime, supporting a dad who uses his company's flex policy may be the best Father's Day gift of all.
The special issue of the "Journal of Social Issues" on the Flexibility Stigma was edited by Joan Williams, Shelley Correll, Jennifer Glass, and Jennifer Berdahl. The introductory essay cited in this article was authored by Joan Williams, Mary Blair-Loy, and Jennifer Berdahl.
Joan Williams is a Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, UC Hastings Foundation Chair, and the Founding Director of the Center for WorkLife Law at UC Hastings. She is a member of the Clayman Institute’s Redefining and Redesigning Work research group.