Flextime: Who receives when they ask?

252185030_616b864353_zWhen it comes to flexible work arrangements, a lot of attention centers on the ask. What do managers react most positively to? Who is most likely to be granted flexible work arrangements?

To figure this out, teams from the Yale School of Management, Harvard Business School, and the University of Texas tried out a number of different scenarios. Managers were asked to react to employees in low and high status occupations, men and women, asking for a shift in work hours to accommodate either childcare needs, or to take professional development classes.

Who was most likely to score a positive reaction? Men in high-status jobs seeking flextime to advance their careers. Women in similar scenarios seeking flextime were far less likely to get it. (Interestingly, men in low status careers who asked for family flex time were quite likely to have their requests approved — more so than women in similar situations, though Yale’s short write-up didn’t really go into reasons for this).

The research teams speculated on plausible reasons for this gender split in high-status occupations. Men advance more rapidly in their careers, and it’s generally thought that that’s because women step off the career track to care for children. But as Yale’s Victoria Brescoll put it, “If scheduling leeway to pursue career advancement is granted to men who are already in high-status positions, that may contribute to their more rapid career advancement.”

Why don’t women get the same flexibility? “It may … be that the association between women and motherhood is so strong that even high-status women requesting flextime to advance their careers might be suspected of hiding the true reason for their request, or they may be viewed as less deserving of further training because it’s assumed that they’ll leave their jobs in the future. There’s an actuarial mistrust of women workers that even women who have proven themselves by achieving high-status jobs and asking for more career training can’t overcome.”

If managers perceive that women are more likely to quit — whether this is true in reality or not — then managers want what they can get now. Perhaps for women, a request for flextime is viewed as putting a foot out the door, but for men it’s not. But, interestingly, it doesn’t seem to be about the confidence of the ask. Women thought they were more likely to be granted flextime for career reasons than men.

I’m not sure what’s to be done about this. I’m not sure it’s up to any particular group to change a perception centered in prejudice (something being talked about with the Zimmerman verdict, to bring up a completely different topic), though there are ways any individual woman can work to convey that she is serious about her career when she understands the bias. Women in general work fewer hours than men, even in full-time jobs. Sometimes putting in the extra hours, visibly, can have a big effect. So can talking about projects and roles you’d like to take on in the future, and asking people in your firm about their career paths. Taking on leadership roles within industry organizations that co-workers participate in can signal that you’re into this “work” thing. It might also be smart to position a flex-time request in terms of a limited time frame. Let’s do it this year, then re-evaluate. That at least shows a manager that you intend to be there in a year.

But another thing to consider — particularly in some high-status jobs — is that it may be possible to create something akin to flex time arrangements without actually asking. If the “ask” triggers all sorts of problems and prejudices, maybe it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission. Sometimes, people can leave on the early side, quietly, without making a fuss. Sometimes, people can take career-advancing classes online during work hours — looking to all the world like you’re working. That might be worth a try, too.

Photo courtesy flickr user clagnut

11 thoughts on “Flextime: Who receives when they ask?

  1. That’s weird, because men are more likely than women to leave to work for a competitor. Women are much more likely to stick around at low wages because some misplaced idea of loyalty to a firm. (Of course, women are still more likely to drop out of the labor market.)

    I blame psychological mis-perceptions– it’s easier to remember the pregnant lady who didn’t come back than the guy who gave 2 weeks notice after preferring the competitor’s matching offer to the firm’s.

    1. @nicoleandmaggie – we look for evidence to support pre-existing hypotheses. We do this for all sorts of things, and it’s no surprise that “women aren’t committed to the workforce” is one such hypothesis…

  2. Interesting… I planned to go back to work 100% after my son was born, but when it came time, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. My husband and I talked about it, and we decided we could stretch our small budget so i could cut back to 75% time with a few hours of that being from home. I was very nervous to ask and was very surprised by how supportive my boss (who is not crazy about children) was. I think the reasons he was okay with it are that 1.We are a small office that truly values family life. 2. I really busted it before I went on maternity leave and 3. I tried hard to show that I was still engaged with my work by checking in during maternity leave and coming back to work relatively early (at 7 weeks post-partum). Sometimes I second guess the decision to stay part-time rather than returning to full-time, but my husband is a PhD student and works so much I think it’s worth it in terms of a decreased stress level because I’m better able to take care of the million little things that come up when you have a small child.

  3. I’m having our new sitter call my husband with questions rather than me because of how “child” interruptions are perceived by each of our colleagues. He’ll be a great Dad for being interrupted. I’ll be a great Mom for not being interrupted.

  4. Laura – can you clarify what “flextime for career advancement” means? Is this something like ducking out early 3x/week to go take MBA classes? Or actually working part-time/cutting workload?

    I wonder if it’s correlated to whether your employer pays for the training/outside education?

    At my former employer, it was very common for folks to do the Executive MBA or Professional Masters’ programs offered at UW, and the company would pay for most of it. This wasn’t seen as a flextime request, though your manager had to sign off on the tuition reimbursement stuff. But everyone was still working full time – they just might need to leave early a few days to get to classes.

    It also wasn’t something you had to “ask for” – if you got into the program, the company would reimburse the tuition. There appeared to be no gender bias here – both my male and female coworkers took advantage of this.

    It’s pretty disheartening to think that women were being “second guessed” at their real reasons for the request, though.

    My hubby had to request a flexible work arrangement when our 1st daughter was born, and his manager spent a LOT of time trying to convince him to make different life choices – that I should return to work full-time, we should hire a full time nanny, and thus hubby wouldn’t need this flexible arrangement to cover the days I worked. It seemed to confuse the heck out of him that we *wanted* to split the child care between ourselves. (Hubby did get the compressed schedule, though.)

    Sometimes I think workplaces go too much into the “why” of decisions like this. I wonder if it would just be better to look at the output/quality of work and decide from there instead of weighing someone’s reasons for asking.

    1. @ARC – I believe it was just a question of shifting usual hours, not actually working less. But there weren’t that many details released in the short write up. I”ll try to get ahold of the actual study.

  5. I was so thankful that I found Pat Katepoo’s WorkOptions website before my first child was born in 2005. I worked for a company with about 10,000 employees and only knew of one other person who was working from home at the time I made my request to work from home two days per week (my request was approved). Her advice is to make a business case for the request and leave the “why” out of it. It helps if you have a solid track record with your boss and are a valued employee.

    1. @Natalie – ah, yes, the business case! I would guess that’s the part that trips a lot of people up. On the work-from-home question, you can always volunteer up your commute time (or part of it) in increased hours…

  6. The results of the study don’t really surprise me. People get an idea in their head and it colors how they view events. Everyone is convinced that working parents- and working mothers in particular- require more flexibility than other workers. I went on a little Twitter rant last week about this, actually, as I picked up the thread of a project that I delayed because of Comic-Con. I don’t mind at all scheduling around Comic-Con, but it sort of rankles that people think that is cool, but not that it is cool that I schedule around one of my team members’ kid’s school schedule. In my years as a project manager, I’ve scheduled project timelines around opening nights of movies, religious holidays, and bike races. I’ve covered for colleagues whose cats had to have emergency surgery and who broke a leg skiing. I once personally caused a major meeting to get rescheduled by getting stuck in some out of the way town due to wildfires closing the roads when I was driving home from a weekend in Vegas (this was pre-kids). Life happens to everyone, not just parents.

  7. I’m not surprised at all. I asked for work from home schedule after kids but was told no.
    I would have worked just as hard but needed flexibility for my kids. I think it’s an old-fashioned mindset to think we all have to be on-site or work the same hours to get things done. Flexibility is needed for a million reasons, as Cloud mentioned.

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