The city of San Francisco just passed a little-noticed policy in an attempt to address the work and family conflict increasingly experienced by today’s workers: a “right-to-request” law that requires all employers to set up a process so that workers can negotiate flexible schedules. That means that starting January 1, city residents will be able to ask their employers about whether they can change their start and end times, telecommute or go part-time and the boss will have to prove “undue hardship” if he refuses. Vermont passed a similar statewide policy in May. These are the only places in the United States to take up such a law, although the UK, New Zealand and Australia have countrywide ones.
Supporters tout such laws as a way to help resolve the conflict of work and family for all. And for those who feel torn between these two worlds, this streamlined path to changing schedules will likely come as a relief. But if the goal of resolving the work/family conflict with policy is to level the playing field for mothers who work and to allow women to catch up to men, flexible scheduling, at least for now, falls short. It cures a symptom without touching the disease.
A big problem is that women tend to be the ones using flexible work options, doing nothing to change workplaces that otherwise remain rigid against attempts to truly transform them to better integrate women workers. One paper found that while married men use them more than married women, once they have children working mothers use them more than fathers. The Families and Work Institute found that women and parents are more likely to use them, with nearly 80 percent of both groups taking advantage of flextime, although 68 percent of men and 70 percent of non-parents use it when they have access. Other evidence suggests that women, and in particular mothers, are more likely to ask for flexibility, and perhaps the similar usage rates stem from the fact that men are just more likely to get it when they ask.
Women and men may also be using the flexibility for different reasons. Researchers at Cornell University interviewed thirty-six couples in upstate New York in 2005 with young infants and found that the mothers made more changes to their work schedules to meet family needs, thus “diminishing the necessity of work-family policies for their full-time employed husbands.” The authors note, “[T]his appeared to be driven by the women’s views of what was required of them personally as mothers and as workers.” Women are much more likely to take advantage of changes in work schedules if they have preschool-aged children, whereas that factor doesn’t make a difference for men. Fathers are much less likely to tell their employers that they need flexibility for family reasons.
In fact, when men ask for flexibility, it’s likely they’re doing so to take time to develop their careers, not devote energy to raising their children. If that’s the case, they’re in luck. Managers are most likely to grant men’s requests for flexible schedules, particularly if they are doing it for personal development reasons, than for women asking for any reason at all. Flexibility, then, gives men a leg up on their careers while simply giving women more time to be caretakers, something they will likely still be penalized for professionally. The evidence says as much: one study found that women with a flexible schedule are perceived to have “less job-career dedication and less advancement motivation.”