The Flex Time Ruse

Does working flexibly harm women?

A trader works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange August 19, 2011.
A trader works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in 2011.

Photo by Lucas Jackson/Reuters

When my daughter was born almost two years ago, I started working part-time, and more flexibly. It was easy enough to give up my online editing job in favor of the kinds of projects that could be completed on my own schedule, and I’d wanted to make the jump from editor to writer for a while. Plus, the thought of juggling a full workweek and a new baby—all while my husband routinely worked 60-plus hours a week—just made me want to take a really long nap.

This decision makes me part of the American vanguard. The popular narrative in recent articles about gender equality in the workplace often laments the lack of family-friendly policies and workplaces in the U.S. If only we were less like Marissa Mayer’s new Yahoo and more like European countries, the story goes, which have spent the last 20 years busily implementing changes like generous paid family leave and protections for part-time workers, American women wouldn’t be opting out in such large numbers. In other words, if only all women had access to generous parental leave and the kind of flexibility that I had taken advantage of, all our gender equality problems would be solved. Even Sheryl Sandberg, who’s been criticized for blaming women for their lack of success in the workplace, is a fan of flex time.

In some respects, the U.S. is indeed falling behind other developed countries, and the lack of family-friendly policies in this country is partly to blame. A new paper by labor economists Francine D. Blau and Lawrence Kahn confirms that U.S. women’s labor force participation, relative to other OECD countries, is lagging. In 1990, the U.S. ranked sixth in female labor force participation among OECD countries. By 2010, while overall female labor force participation in the U.S. had risen slightly, the U.S.’s ranking among OECD countries had fallen to 17.

But family-friendly policies create their own set of problems: Much of the increase in women’s labor force participation in other developed countries has come in the form of less-demanding, part-time jobs—the dreaded “mommy track.” “These policies work to keep women in the work force,” says Blau, “but they’re less effective at moving them up when they’re in.” In contrast, women in the family-unfriendly U.S. are both more likely to work full-time and more likely to work in higher-level, managerial positions.

There are a couple reasons why these policies can have the unintended consequence of harming women’s long-term career prospects. “[E]mployers may be less interested in women as a group for jobs that require commitment to the labor force and higher-level jobs because they might start to perceive women as a group as individuals who may be the in and out of the labor force,” explains Blau.

The availability of longer parental leave and part-time work also encourages women to, well, actually take long parental leaves and request part-time working arrangements. This kind of work-life balance may make for happier womenconsider the Netherlands, where women are quite happy but less than 10 percent work full time, or all those (alleged) feminist housewives in New Jersey—but research has repeatedly shown that such alternate career arrangements are still quite harmful to women’s incomes and career advancements.

For example, a substantial body of research confirms that part-timers are paid less (per hour) than full-time workers, across countries and professions. A 2008 paper by Elena Bardasi and Janet Gornick found part-time wage penalties for women in Canada, Germany, Italy, the U.K., and the U.S. And a 2012 paper found part-time wage penalties in Austria, Italy, Poland, and the U.K., all countries that have protections in place for part-time workers.

Much of the penalty is due to something economists call “occupational segregation”—part-time work is usually of a lower quality than full-time work. “The segmented nature of part-time work meant that women who switched to part-time hours, usually over child rearing, were often thrown off their occupational path into low-skilled, feminized work,” writes feminist sociologist Louisa Blackwell. In other words, you don’t see many three-day-a-week investment bankers or Fortune 500 CEOs.

Extended job interruptions also take a heavy toll on women’s earnings. The economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz have a paper that looks at the cost of workplace flexibility, including job interruptions, across a variety of “high-powered” professions over the last 40 years. The costs vary considerably across disciplines, but “MBAs give up 41 percent [of their earnings], Ph.D.s and J.D.s 29 percent, and M.D.s just 16 percent for a job interruption equivalent to 18 months during the 15 years after receiving their BA.” Even overly generous maternity leave policies are associated with higher gender wage gaps.

Another paper by Goldin and Katz (with Marianne Bertrand) more closely examined the wage gap among MBA graduates of the University of Chicago. The gap is “mainly a consequence of gender differences in career interruptions and weekly hours worked.” “Deviations from the male norm of high hours and continuous labor market attachment are greatly penalized in the corporate and financial sectors,” they write. “The presence of children is the main contributor to the lesser job experience, greater career discontinuity, and shorter work hours for female MBAs.”

Viewed in this light, my casual decision to spend my afternoons stacking blocks with my daughter starts to look a little riskier. Female journalists like myself may find it relatively easy to work part-time and navigate the occasional job interruption, but who’s to say that very flexibility isn’t harming our long-term career prospects? After all, women continue to be underrepresented at top magazines and literary journals.

Of course, not everyone wants to be a CEO or the executive editor of the New York Times, and what holds back highly privileged, upper-class women may be life-saving for others. “Suppose it’s true, suppose some of these programs have the effect of lowering the glass ceiling,” says Janet Gornick, a professor of political science and sociology at CUNY who’s studied workplace flexibility extensively. “You’re trading off—maybe you’re harming the top 10 percent, but the bottom 90 really need this stuff. If you’re a working class, single mom, you want to be in Sweden. If you want to be a CEO, maybe you want to live in the U.S.”

So what’s a well-meaning policymaker to do? “You know, it’s a very hard tradeoff between allowing and encouraging women to participate as much as they can at various times in their life cycle,” acknowledges Blau. “And actually encouraging them to have a lesser commitment.”

Parental leave could also be designed to better encourage gender equity. “Use it or lose it” policies that offer nontransferable parental leave to fathers as well as mothers, as opposed to policies where parents choose how to share the leave, encourage fathers to do their share. “Babies, as far as I know, have two sets of chromosomes,” says Claudia Goldin. “We need to do what the Swedes have done and say it’s both parents’ responsibility. To make it a women-oriented policy is to make it a family-oriented policy.”

Iceland is a brilliant example,” says Janet Gornick. “They had a shareable policy, and then they broke it into threes—three for him, three for her, three to be shared. As soon as the men got the three months that couldn’t be given away, their use of it skyrocketed.”

Reducing the stigma associated with the kinds of detours and flexible work arrangements that can help facilitate women’s careers may be the best way to improve gender equality in the U.S. Norms around family-friendly policies clearly are changing for the better. According to Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, the costs of workplace flexibility have declined in every profession—and some unexpected professions are downright utopian in their flexibility. For example, 36 percent of female pediatricians worked part-time hours in 2006, up from 28 percent in 2000.

“I’ve been watching over a long period of time and employers are getting more interested in this issue,” says Blau. “And one way to look at it is if you look at the graduates of these programs, there are lots of women. I think firms have an incentive to be concerned.”

Despite this progress, however, stigmas persist, even in academia, which Anne-Marie Slaughter praised for its flexible scheduling. One academic, who briefly worked a reduced schedule when her children were small, apologetically declined my interview request, explaining that she just didn’t feel comfortable advertising her previous part-time status as she’s about to be considered for full-professor. Family-friendly policies may be the best way to encourage women to remain in the workforce, but as long as these kinds of alternative arrangements and career paths are overwhelmingly utilized by women and ignored by men, workers will pay a price for taking advantage of them.

For her part, Francine Blau points to one reform that’s unambiguously good for children, women of all classes, and gender equality: subsidized, high-quality childcare. “It really dovetails with another problem that I’ve been recently concerned with – rising inequality in our country,” she says. “I’d love to see more emphasis on universal pre-K programs.”