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.”
Women, then, are using these programs to reinforce their roles as mothers, while men use them to advance as workers. Flexible scheduling, it seems, will just further reinforce the Leave It To Beaver split.
Other data has shown that the types of flexibility they make use of are different and men may not risk their careers with the kinds they choose. Women use “formal” flexibility, such as shifting to part-time schedules, while men just change their start and end times while putting in the same hours. The research organization Catalyst found that high-powered men and women make equal use of flexible work arrangements, but women are more likely to telecommute, use flex time and reduce their work hours or go part-time. Men are nearly twice as likely to say they have never telecommuted during the entire span of their careers. Flexible scheduling may just be another way of dropping out of the workforce when women have children. If women go part-time or telecommute, they will have trouble getting promoted into management, which typically requires putting in full, in-person hours. And they may just make themselves out of sight, out of mind. “Research shows that employees who work remotely are likely to receive poorer performance evaluations, smaller raises, and fewer promotions than their in-office colleagues,” Nannette Fondas wrote at The Atlantic. Not to mention that fewer hours means less pay.
That’s not to say that right-to-request laws shouldn’t be passed. There’s clearly a big demand for flexibility, and given our current work culture, many working moms will likely pounce at whatever they can get to make their lives easier. But these policies are worse than just a stopgap—they may move women backward if they are perceived as even more likely to leave to care for children or less dedicated to their jobs. To truly transform the workplace so that all parents can go to work and raise children, we need guaranteed time off in the form of vacations, family leave (required for both genders) and sick days. Even more than that, we need to simply work less. Americans put in more hours than in nineteen other developed countries. Reducing everyone’s workday would free both genders up to spend time with their children—or their aging parents, or their friends or their cats.