The flexibility debate: A morass of gendered assumptions, poor evidence, and imprecision

By Mary Still

Two high-powered, high-tech executives have reignited glass ceiling debates recently, with workplace flexibility emerging as a central issue in the conversation. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s edict that the company’s “work from home” program end sparked considerable outrage nationwide, as did Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s exhortation that women must “lean in” to fight workplace barriers preventing gender parity.

Is flexibility the solution or the problem? In the Yahoo scenario, Mayer’s critics charged that her decision would unduly hurt women, because flexible work appears to be the only way women can manage both work and family. In the Facebook scenario, flexibility is a kind of “mommy track” that actually hurts women.

The truth is, we really don’t know which is correct.

As a worker with flexibility, I’m grateful that I don’t have to punch a time clock or ask permission to go to a doctor’s appointment. Then again, I and most professors I know put in more than 40 hours a week, as do many workers in other “high commitment” professions – lawyers, doctors, business owners, journalists, consultants. People in these occupations buy their flexibility through overwork.

The notion of flexibility as a byproduct of overwork differs dramatically, however, from earlier ideas of worker flexibility that initially showed up in the “work/life” arena decades ago, where the point was to recognize that workers (mostly women) could have outside interests and responsibilities and still be good workers. Flexibility in many organizations such as high-tech firms like Yahoo and Facebook amounts to letting workers decide which 10-14 hours a day they will work. Companies encourage this brand of flexibility not because they are committed to gender equity or to employee self-actualization, but because they benefit from it. Imagine you are a manager in an organization where your workers are so skilled, committed, educated (or, some might say, brainwashed) that they will actually voluntarily stay up until 3 a.m. writing code or performing other activities, are you going to demand they be in the office for an 8 a.m. meeting? If they put in 65-70 hours and then want to see their child in a school play, you will probably pat them on the back and tell them to go right ahead. Allowing a worker to “put family first” for 2 of 65 hours is hardly a problem for employers whose workers habitually hyper-achieve.

My own research following the spread of these practices amongst firms shows numerous complexities and problems with how we talk about, measure and evaluate flexibility. For example, in a survey conducted by Cornell University’s Couples and Careers Institute, where I was a pre-doctoral fellow, one company indicated it offered flextime, but follow-up interviews revealed the company had no such formal policy — it simply had allowed one or two workers permission to work 8:45 to 5:45 rather than 8:30 to 5:30. Other companies in the sample showed a huge disparity between what management said they did in terms of flexibility and what their workers said the companies allowed. One company in the sample was a perennial “best places for working mothers” winner, but its employees were clueless about what they actually had access to. Much of what happens in organizations is informally negotiated, and is not distributed equitably or on an objective basis (Still & Strang, 2003).

Work/life programs, which grew out of the movement to increase women’s labor force participation, often unwittingly further marginalize workers and label them uncommitted if they use them (Glass, 2004; Williams & Cuddy, 2012). A stream of persuasive work in social psychology shows that implicit cognitive biases are triggered by women’s “essential” childbearing roles; working flexibly reinforces or exaggerates those biases. As McCloskey and Igbaria (2004) have shown, when a man is out of the office, he is assumed to be “rainmaking” – a busy, important executive out meeting clients; when a woman is, she is assumed to be at home with a sick child. These underlying mechanisms produce a highly gendered workplace, in which gender differences are only sharpened by the usage of practices designed to ameliorate them.

A further weakness in the public debate over flexibility is its avoidance of occupational class divisions in the workplace. Do hotel clerks, baristas, orderlies, janitors, police officers, maids and other such workers have access to flexible hours or places of work? (Sometimes their ‘flexible hours’ are code for part-time work). Some don’t even have paid sick or vacation leave, so the prospect of gaining autonomy over how work is done seems quite dim. Just as flexibility usage sharpens distinctions around gender, so it exaggerates the gulf between occupational haves and have-nots. Many professional, exempt employees have the freedom to engage in any number of personal activities during the traditional workday that hourly/non-exempts can only dream of. One merely has to glance down the hallways at 4 p.m. on a snowy winter day to observe the obvious manifestation of our occupational class ranking system. Who is still there? Certain employees can use flexibility to leave before the weather turns dangerous; others cannot, and must take their risks on the road. Surely this message is not lost on either class.

The following are some critical short-term steps toward which policy makers, organizations, researchers, politicians and activists should work:

1. Reframe the issue. For too long, flexibility has been a “woman’s” problem, or even worse, a “privileged white woman’s” problem. We should view the issue more holistically as being about all individuals having the right to care for loved ones, be they children, spouses, domestic partners, elderly parents or whomever, and to expect employers to allow them, within reason, to fulfill this basic human right. Current conversations around civil society, sustainability or even corporate social responsibility inherently embrace such a broader frame.

2. Reverse the “rights/privileges” logic. In my interviews with managers, they often expressed fear that formalizing flexible practice in written policies would lead to employee entitlement. Evidence suggests, however, that managers may be worrying prematurely. In the U.K., a 2003 law giving workers the right to ask for flexibility assumes employers will grant the request unless they can prove it is not feasible to do so (and that burden of proof is not easily met). Notably, the flexibility “floodgates” companies feared would open as a result of the law have not materialized (Hegewisch & Gornick, 2008).

3. Measure and study more precisely what companies mean by flexibility and what is actually done. Require companies track the usage of flexible programs by gender, race, ethnicity and social/occupational class.

4. Study the causal mechanisms by which flexibility either fails or succeeds. Does it reduce face-time, which is essential to innovation? Or conversely, does it lead to 24/7 access to the employee (a trade-off for control over schedule/place), which increases productivity?

5. Require that employers analyze job descriptions and specify their suitability for flexible time and place, as well as specify what percentage of the job can be done so. Disclose these analyses to applicants.

Employers will resist some of these proposals. But research suggests that allowing them to adopt practices voluntarily results in uneven and underwhelming uptake. American firms have had 30 years to demonstrate their creative interpretation and enactment of flexibility; to date, they have failed to do much at all.

References

Glass, J. (2004). Blessing or curse? Work-family policies and mother’s wage growth over time. Work and Occupations, 31(3), 367-394.
Hegewisch, A., & Gornick, J.C. (2008). Statutory routes to workplace flexibility in cross-national perspective. Retrieved from http://www.iwpr.org/pdf/B258workplaceflex.pdf
McCloskey, D. W., & Igbaria, M. 2003. “Does ‘out of sight’ mean ‘out of mind’? An empirical investigation of the career advancement prospects of telecommuters. Information Resources Management Journal,16(2): 19–34.
Still, M.C. and Strang, D. 2003. “Institutionalizing family-friendly policies.” In It’s About Time, edited by Phyllis Moen. Cornell University Press.
Williams, J.C. and Cuddy, A.J.C. 2012. “Will working mothers take your company to court?” Harvard Business Review: 94.

Additional information:

Families and Work Institute: http://www.familiesandwork.org/
WorkLife Law: http://worklifelaw.org/work-life-issues/workplace-flexibility/
Work/life research bank: http://www.bc.edu/centers/cwf/research/sloan.html
Work/family equity global index: http://www.nationalpartnership.org/site/DocServer/McGill_Study_2007.pdf?docID=1581
National Partnership for Women and Family: http://www.nationalpartnership.org/site/PageServer?pagename=issues_work_Library_workflex

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7 thoughts on “The flexibility debate: A morass of gendered assumptions, poor evidence, and imprecision

  1. Picking up on Stephan’s point about the “subtle market logic of organizing” and “this open question of how my decisions are compared to others”, I wonder whether there is another problem underlying the flexibility debate: the individual’s responsibility for him- or herself, with all the risks involved. While this is a controversial issue in Europe, with its stronger social traditions, it seems to be taken for granted in the US. Interestingly, Mary Still’s “critical short-term steps” are broadly addressed to “policy makers, organisations, researchers, politicians and activists”, yet not to trade unions, which would be among the first to consider in a European context. The point at issue here is that flexible arrangements typically agreed in Germany at company level between the management and the unions, e.g. via a works council, clearly provide extra backing for the needs of the individual employee. Which doesn’t mean, though, that flexibility is not compensated for by a doubling of effort at work and at home…

  2. I agree with Marc and Zia that there are multiple forms of flexibility that have been introduced – mostly to increase productivity and reduce costs, rather than to address the needs of employees. The model of the ‘flexible firm’ as introduced by Atkinson and others is all about that. But no matter why flexible work and employment practices get introduced, I feel that they come along with a subtle market logic of organizing. As soon as there is ‘flexibility’ and employees get to ‘decide’ how to organize their time or what employment model/status to use, there is this open question of how my decisions are compared to others’, and whether my wish to work from home, or take time off, or come in late will be held against me as hiring or promotion decisions come up etc. No wonder many organizations have found it difficult to implement flexibility programs effectively as Mary points out in her blog. There seems to be something liberating about zero-flexibility 9 to 5 jobs. At least there is a clear cut between work time and family/play time (says someone who has no personal experience with those kinds of jobs). Any thoughts on this?

  3. This all leaves me wondering whether the highly varied and sometimes poor use of these practices might mean that organizations that get this right stand to benefit greatly and distinguish themselves ( in terms of commitment, retention, performance,). My sense is that younger works–regardless of gender–aspire to more work-life flexibility than previous generations.Some economies have incentive to keep older workers in the work force. Might these broader forces create added pressures to experiment with flexibility and to see it in less gendered terms? Your point about the disparity of these practices between wage and professional work is, of course, extremely important. I read about large retail firms seeking more flexibility for the firm at the expense of workers (i.e. scheduling works more on an as needed basis than a set schedule). I’m also reminded of low-wage seasonal workers seeking the flexibility to work more, not less, given work that had a decided high season followed by a predictable drought. Again, I’d hope that firms that figure out how to use flexibility more sensibly in these circumstances would be rewarded. Perhaps I’m under-appreciating these dynamics of all this given high unemployment. Thanks for adding nuance to these issues.

  4. Europeans such as yourself are often aghast at the naivete of our flexibility programs, Stephan. Yes, the real issue is job security — in fact, some have argued this is the most “family-friendly” policy a company can have, and for awhile some companies adopted a “no-layoff” policy to prove their friendliness. I think the idea of “job security in the face of family difficulties” is really part of the reframing I advocate.

  5. “As McCloskey and Igbaria (2004) have shown, when a man is out of the office, he is assumed to be “rainmaking” – a busy, important executive out meeting clients; when a woman is, she is assumed to be at home with a sick child. These underlying mechanisms produce a highly gendered workplace, in which gender differences are only sharpened by the usage of practices designed to ameliorate them.”

    Allowing flexible work schedules/locations seems, for some companies, to alleviate some productivity short-falls. The problem addressed by Dr. Still above is just sexism. Flexible work is implemented in spite of sexism but it doesn’t necessarily adequately combat it. That said, I think that the existence of sexism is a poor reason to scrap flexibility. The assumptions need to be challenged. Maybe that’s what Sheryl Sandberg meant by leaning in?

  6. Thank you Mary for your interesting post. However, I was a little surprised to hear that ‘flextime programs’ or lack there-of is such a big debate in the U.S. Maybe I’m a little biased here, but for how many jobs (in the U.S.) are flexibility programs actually relevant? As you said, in some highly paid professions, e.g. consulting, working time is likely to be negotiated individually, depending on performance, status/tenure etc. But in so many other job contexts, e.g. restaurants, hotels, supermarkets, and even universities, people work part-time or on a contract basis anyway. Often, people work two or three jobs at the same time. And for any of these jobs, turnover rates are pretty high. (And people get fired all the time.) This is certainly not the case in Europe where the full-time, long-term (or even life-time) employment model still exists, and where, because of that, discussions about greater flexibility, parental leave etc. are highly relevant. But in the U.S., I feel that most people need to negotiate ‘flexible time’ with ‘themselves’ by organizing their two or three jobs per week in a way that allows them to spend time with their family etc. So, I don’t want to sound cynical here, but what’s the point of discussing flexibility programs where the much more important (and basic) issue for many is job security, adequate pay, and long-term career prospects?

  7. I think flexibility is essential to be innovative in your approach. When i used to work in an IT company there were some projects which required weekly time-sheets to be filled. These projects were specifically acting as back-offices for the European and North American clients and required to work according to client time-zones. On the contrary my project was totally developmental hence was not daily time bound. Members were given monthly deadlines to finish the task assigned which helped in learning and response at the same time.

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