Better Life Lab

Flexible Work Alone Won’t Create Gender Equality, but These Things Might

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Thinkstock.

In her presidential address to the prestigious American Economic Association in 2014, Harvard economist Claudia Goldin argued that it’s not so much the government passing anti-discrimination or family friendly policies or men doing more at home (“although that wouldn’t hurt”) that would at last bring gender equality to the workplace. It’s flexible work.

By completely restructuring work and no longer disproportionately rewarding long and specific hours of face time in the office, Goldin argued, the gender pay gap could disappear; women wouldn’t be edged out of promotions, leadership, higher pay and even work itself once they started families—the pivot point that stalls most women’s work trajectories today.

Surveys show flexibility can certainly help women. In one study of 53 companies with at least half of the employees working remotely, 19 percent had a female CEO, compared to 4 percent of S&P 500 companies.

Research has shown that flexible work reduces work-life conflict, improves worker health, and increases work commitment and productivity, while improving job performance. However, much of that productivity boost comes in the form of longer work hours.

So how is it, somewhat perplexingly, that a series of recent studies show that flexibility doesn’t lead to greater gender equality but can actually make it worse?

In one recent study, researchers analyzed flexible work in Germany. They found, not surprisingly, that flexible work schedules tended to increase work hours for both men and women on full-time schedules.

But even though both German men and women increased the number of hours they worked when they began working flexibly, only the men benefited financially. Both the men and women studied earned more than those on fixed schedules because of the overtime hours they put in. But only the men appeared to get a flexibility bonus, earning between 1,000 and 2,200 euros a year more beyond pay for overtime hours.

Women working flexibly made more than women on fixed schedules due to overtime pay, but otherwise there were no additional financial benefits.

“This finding is certainly a disappointment if you’re thinking of offering flexibility as a way to promote more gender equality,” said Shelley MacDermid Wadsworth, who studies work-life issues as director of the Center for Families at Purdue University. “But the fact is that flexibility can lead to greater gender equality and to greater gender inequality. Both of these things are true.”

So how can both of these things be true? Because culture matters.

In the United States, where there are virtually no national family friendly policies, women are still expected to be primary caregivers and squeeze work in if, and when, they can. Women still do twice the housework and child care, time diary research shows, even when they work full-time or are the primary breadwinners.

In Germany, though it has more generous family policies, researchers argue, the traditional gender norms of male breadwinners and female caregivers are still powerful.

Those norms wind up influencing the way flexibility works. Employers tend to expect men to use a flexible work arrangement to get more education or professional development and be more productive at work. With women, employers assume they’ll use flexibility for caregiving, which they see as a distraction from work.

Indeed, another study found that while flexible work is most associated with women, and often stigmatized as an accommodation for workers who have less ambition or commitment, employers are more likely to approve men’s requests for flexible schedules, and reject women’s, especially women in low skilled or low-wage work who need schedule control the most.

They may not be wrong about these assumptions about how workers use their time. In a recent study of the U.S., researchers found that male doctors used their ability to control their schedule to simply work more, in keeping with the traditional norm that men are ideal workers able to dedicate themselves solely to the job. Nurses, however, in the more female-dominated profession, used their flexibility to manage home and caregiving responsibilities. In both cases, the authors argue, these highly skilled workers were using flexibility to “do gender,” or reinforce traditional gender roles.

But this doesn’t appear true across all segments of the workforce.

Women in the mostly female certified nursing assistant field had little access to flexibility—particularly so for women of color. Their low wages and the fact that many were the single or primary breadwinners for their families drove them to seek to work more shifts in their flexible “free” time, rather than give care. Unlike male doctors, men in the mostly male emergency medical technician occupation, which is lower paid, often organized their schedules around caregiving for their families. In both cases, workers disrupted traditional gender roles.

That doesn’t mean flexibility hasn’t helped promote gender equality. It has.

Flexible, reduced schedules were initially introduced in many white-collar workplaces in the 1990s as a way to keep highly skilled women in the workforce who were also still expected to carry on their traditional role of primary caregiver and facing intense time pressure juggling both roles. “We kicked our flexibility efforts into high gear in the mid-1990s, when we found that women were leaving at a rate that was 10 to 15 percentage points higher than men in the U.S.,” said Maryella Gockel, flexibility leader with the professional services firm EY.

Now, with formal flexible work, reduced and part-time schedules and informal day-to-day flexibility, along with other efforts, Gockel said EY retains men and women at the same rate. And they’ve reached their original goal of promoting women partners, with women making up about 30 percent of each new partner class every year. “Ultimately, the goal would be, at some point we would get to 50–50.” Gockel said.

So what can we learn about flexibility and its effect on gender from these seemingly contradictory findings? Truthfully, that flexibility alone can’t solve the puzzle of gender equality in the workplace. Here’s what else we will need.

Shifting gender norms on work and care

Millennials, more of whom are in dual-income marriages and partnerships compared to their Baby Boom bosses, expect to more fairly share work and home responsibilities and, regardless of caregiving, want flexibility and work-life balance. They may provide the push we need to get these changes from the top.

Because of these generational shifts, EY’s Gockel said the organization now offers up new role models of ideal workers—men and women who use formal and informal flexibility to volunteer for community service, to provide child and elder care, and a host of other reasons from designing a better commute, handling weather and illness, to living closer to family. For instance, when Mark Weinberger became EY’s global CEO, he chose to keep his family in Washington and work from there rather than move to company headquarters in New York, as his predecessors had.

Passing basic family policies

Family policies like paid family leave and accessible, affordable high quality child care, in addition to flexible work and schedule control as a right for all workers—policies that the United States currently does not have—are also critical to creating the conditions for gender equality.

These policies can shape culture. One recent study of immigrants and gender equality found that the country culture, institutions and policies shaped immigrants’ behavior and attitudes around work, care and gender. For instance, Russians living in Finland and Germans living in the Netherlands and Sweden, where the cultures and policies support more gender equality at work and home, embraced those views. But Russians living in Ukraine and Germans living in Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Greece, where more traditional gender norms held sway, took those views as their own.

Shifting economics and technology

In her work, Goldin found that pharmacy was among the most egalitarian professions, and that was solely a function of shifting economics and technology changing the way the work was organized.

Manar Morales, president and CEO of the Diversity and Flexibility Alliance who works with companies to implement flexibility for everyone, said technology and globalization are similarly changing the way work is organized in a host of other sectors. This could reduce the reward of long face-time hours and lead to more gender equality in a number of occupations. “As companies get more global, their teams need to know how to be just as effective collaborating with team members across time zones” and managing clients a world away. This means flexibility will become the default, simply the way everyone works, rather than the exception for someone with additional caregiving demands.

Changing how we value our nonworking time

Perhaps not all jobs can become more flexible, though many more than are now could. And perhaps some people don’t want to use flexibility to reshape traditional gender roles, feeling perfectly satisfied with the way things are now, Purdue’s MacDermid Wadsworth argues.

But the point is, we need a culture that at least gives men and women an opportunity to make a choice. And to do that, we need to start thinking about time in a completely different way.

In our work-saturated American culture, we tend to view any time not devoted to work as less important. But what about the kind of time that makes a life worth living? Time to care for ourselves and others, to connect, to wonder, to breathe. For flexibility to truly lead to gender equality—or saner lives—we need to once again value the time we need to, as the Greek philosophers said, refresh the soul.