Work

New Research: Women Aren’t Paid Less Because They Have More Flexible Jobs

They work in low-paying jobs because they have no other choice.

Harried preschool teacher surrounded by happy screaming toddlers.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ariel Skelley/Getty Images.

A recent study shows that the global gender pay gap has increased to 32 percent, and projects that at this rate, women will have to wait another 217 years for the pay gap to close. It’s not just your own gender, but the gender makeup of your workplace that predicts your wages. Workers in female-dominated workplaces have been shown to be paid less than other workers. An industry’s pay level even starts to decrease when women take over a male-dominated field.

Some argue that the low pay for women is justified by the fact that ‘women’s work’ is generally less strenuous/hazardless work compared to men’s work, and that, in exchange for lower wages, they have better working conditions—especially those that allow a better work-life balance. Some well-meaning scholars argue that women sometimes forego higher pay to have that flexibility in their jobs—an argument sometimes extended to suggest that women voluntarily “choose” lower paying jobs to facilitate their “life choices”—read: to take care of children.

It is true that women tend to work part-time more than men, but this doesn’t mean they’re actually being given flexibility to set their schedules at work, either in part-time or full-time jobs.

This is what I found in a recently published paper in the European Journal of Industrial Relations. Using data from across 27 European countries, I tested to see whether the gender of the worker, and the gender makeup of the workplace has an influence on workers’ access to flexible working arrangements—namely flexitime—the ability to control starting and ending times of your work. The results show that there were no significant differences between men and women in their access to flexitime across Europe—if anything men getting slightly better access. What’s more, workers in female-majority workplaces had the worst level of access to flexitime compared to their counterparts in male-majority workplaces or workplaces where men and women were equally represented.

The gap was significant: In some cases, working in female-dominated workplaces such as care work, primary education, or places where the work tends to be largely clerical meant you were only half as likely to have access to flexitime compared to other workplaces. This was the case for both men and women in those workplaces, and held true even when other factors such as skill levels, working hours, contract status, and other relevant factors were taken into account. Furthermore, female-dominated workplaces were worse off in terms of flexitime access in all of the 27 European countries investigated. It isn’t just flexitime. I also found similar results for other types of flexible working arrangements such as the ability to take time off work a couple of hours to tend to personal issues.

This isn’t just true in Europe: Studies dating back to the 1990s using data in the U.S. found similar results. So why does this myth of women and workers in female-dominated workplaces having better access to flexible working arrangements persist, despite the facts?

One reason is because of how the debate over flexible work has been framed. Many countries, including the U.K., have introduced the right to flexible working as a major way of addressing work-family issues for workers. Thus many assume that those who are in most need of family-friendly arrangements will be those who are most likely to have access to it. Given that in all countries, women still take up the bulk of the care and household responsibilities, people think they will have better access to these arrangements.

Employers tend to provide workers control over their work when they trust and believe that will contribute back to the company rather than to skive off work. As a result, this control is rewarded only to high-skill workers in top occupations. Since society still holds rather gendered views of men and women—believing that men’s priorities lies in breadwinning while women will prioritize their family life, employers are more reluctant to provide control over work time to women, believing they will use it to care for their families rather than use it to improve their work performance.

So what does this all mean? It means that workers in female-dominated workplaces are paid less, and they are worse off in having access to family-friendly policies that enable them to maintain their careers while meeting demands at home. This may also explain why so many women have to end up working part-time when they have children—it isn’t an unfettered life choice, but precisely because other options that can help them balance work with family life are not available to them. They have no other option but to reduce their hours. And in many countries, including the U.S., part-time work is usually accompanied by, you guessed it, lower pay.

A good example comes from a friend who had an administrative job in a predominantly female department. Despite the fact that her work could be done anywhere and any time, her boss would not let her work from home especially if it had anything to do with childcare reasons. This is despite within the same company, in other departments where it wasn’t quite female dominated, working from home was much more easily granted.

What can we do to change this? The example of the U.K. shows that the introduction of right to request flexible working alone does not help to enable flexible working access to workers, especially those who need it most. Employers need to see the vast benefits flexible working can provide to their company through recruiting and maintaining their workforce.

New legislation proposed by the European commission makes the burden of rejecting a request to flexible working lie with the employer—they need to provide justification as to why it was rejected rather than the workers needing to justify why it is needed. This could enable a better negotiation position for many workers for whom flexible working will be crucial in helping them navigate their work with family life, many of whom will be low paid women. In fact, I’ve found that when you provide women with flexitime or the ability to work from home, they are much less likely to reduce their working hours after childbirth.

Falling back on “choice” as an explanation for persistent gender inequality in the labor market and in wages is no longer tenable. Women are not choosing lower paying jobs due to their life choices. The current labor market and employers’ biases against them are leaving them without any real choices at all.

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