In 2013, Joan C. Williams and a team of other researchers released a series of studies in the Journal of Social Issues addressing how the use of flexible work solutions impacts our careers.61 The news is not good.
In the past decade, more and more employers have increased options to help their employees manage where and when they work. These employee “perks” can include part-time work, condensed workweeks, job sharing, and telecommuting. In fact, 79 percent of U.S. firms allow some of their employees, and 37 percent allow all or most, to periodically change starting or quitting times.62 A 2014 National Study of Employers found that 38 percent of employers allow some of their employees to regularly work from home,63 up from 23 percent in 2008. But while flexibility programs have become widespread, according to Joan C. Williams, their usage rates remain low: Only 11 percent of the full-time workforce has a formal agreement with their employer to vary their work hours, while another 18 percent have an informal agreement.
Why? Employees worry those who actually use these “benefits” will face career repercussions, a flexibility stigma that can have long-term implications for one’s career.
“Many times these policies are on the books, but informally everyone knows you are penalized for using them,” said Professor Williams.64
I can certainly relate. When I returned to work at the Nestle Corporation after my first child was born, I negotiated a much-needed condensed workweek. My employer and I agreed that I would work Monday through Thursday and would be off on Friday. My title and salary would remain the same; I would simply be working longer hours to make up for the day I was not in the office. Sounds good on paper. I was grateful for the support my company gave me. That is, until my new manager started complaining.
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He said I was never available when he needed me. He continually scheduled important meetings on Fridays and openly pondered my commitment to the job. At one point, he told me he thought children benefited from being raised by their mothers and asked me why I wasn’t at home with my son.
“Isn’t it hard leaving him home with a complete stranger every day?” he asked me not long after I had returned from maternity leave. I fantasized about saying something like, “Yes, you idiot, of course it is,” but instead I decided to leave the company. It didn’t take long for me to find a better job with more responsibility and a bigger salary. It’s true I lost my free Friday, but at least I didn’t have to work directly for a boss who believed I was neither fully committed to my career nor a good mother.
The flexibility stigma can derail a good career when companies and managers don’t see flexibility as a retention tool. A number of respondents to the Women on the Rise survey found that working part-time kept them from key assignments and limited their ability to be promoted. As a result, many eventually quit working yet more women’s careers derailed because the workplace simply couldn’t accommodate their short-term caregiving needs.
The ideal worker construct, motherhood bias, and flexibility stigma are the workplace dynamics that send women slinking toward the door, but there are also cultural dynamics that draw them home. The Women on the Rise survey revealed it wasn’t just the challenges they faced in the office, it was the dynamics at home that, as one respondent said, “drove a nail into the coffin” of their careers.
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