Stigma hinders workplace flexibility, reports special issue
For years, academics have argued that flexible workplace
policies are good for employers as well as employees because
they decrease turnover and increase productivity.
But according to a special issue of the Journal of Social Issues,
employees often don’t take advantage of such policies, fearing
wage penalties, lower performance evaluations and fewer
promotions. Women don’t want to be “mommy tracked,” men
worry about being seen as feminine, and those in lower-wage
positions are concerned about jeopardizing their jobs. These
fears are well-founded, the issue finds. “It’s time to start to talk
about the psychodynamics surrounding workplace politics
that’s making workplaces resistant to change,” says Joan C.
Williams, JD, who guest edited the issue with Jennifer Glass,
PhD, Shelley Correll, PhD, and Jennifer Berdahl, PhD.
Here are some of the issue’s highlights:
• In “The All-or-Nothing Workplace: Flexibility Stigma
and ‘Opting Out’ Among Professional-Managerial Women,”
researchers found that women in high-status positions often
choose to leave their jobs because they feel they cannot live up
to workplace expectations that demand constant availability
for work. Mothers also experienced repercussions for seeking
flexible schedules, such as not being assigned to appropriately
high-level projects. Interestingly, the study’s participants rarely
considered their treatment discrimination.
• Lower-income mothers face penalties such as warnings
from supervisors and suspended pay when they’re unable to
find or pay for child care, according to “Stereotyping Low-Wage Mothers Who Have Work and Family Conflicts.” In a
review of research in the area, the author found that employers
often view these women — 40 percent of whom have children
with special health or educational needs — as irresponsible.
“The notion is that if you couldn’t have handled all of this, you
shouldn’t have had children,” Williams says.
• “Fathers and the Flexibility Stigma,” a longitudinal study
of 12,686 men and women, found that men who leave the
workforce for family reasons can expect to earn 26. 4 percent
less later in their careers than they would have had they never
left the workforce. Women face a 23. 2 percent financial penalty.
• One study described in “When Equal isn’t Really Equal:
The Masculine Dilemma of Seeking Work Flexibility,” found
that while men and women say they value work flexibility and
work-life balance equally, women are significantly more likely
to plan to take advantage of flexible work policies.
• “Penalizing Men Who Request a Family Leave: Is Flexibility
Stigma a Femininity Stigma?” found that men who ask for
family leave are “feminized” — judged as weaker, more
communal, but also as less agentic and dominant. They are
seen as poorer employees and are economically penalized as a
• Two studies detailed in “Workplace Mistreatment
of Middle Class Workers Based on Sex, Parenthood, and
Caregiving,” found that caregiving fathers were made to feel not
tough enough and were excluded or bullied more on the job
than traditional fathers and men without children. Mothers, on
the other hand, faced more harassment and mistreatment when
they spent less time on caregiving. Women without children
were harassed and mistreated most of all.
• “Ask and ye shall receive? The Dynamics of Employer-Provided Flexible Work Options and the Need for Public
Policy” found that managers were most likely to grant
flextime to hypothetical high-status men who asked for
flexible schedules to advance their careers, such as by taking
a professional development class. Among fictitious women,
employers rarely granted flexible work requests, no matter their
status or reason. In a second study, the researchers found that
employees are unaware of such biases.
— ANNA MILLER