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