Managers are most likely to grant flexible work schedules to men in high-status jobs who request flextime to pursue career advancement opportunities, according to a study by researchers at the Yale School of Management, the University of Texas-Austin, and Harvard Business School.
In contrast, women in both high- and low-status jobs are unlikely to be granted flextime for either family or career reasons. Men in low-status jobs are particularly likely to gain flextime approval for family care, more so than women in low-status jobs and men in high-status jobs.
“Workers most in need of flexible scheduling—women in low-status jobs with childcare needs—are among the least likely to receive accommodations from their managers,” says Victoria Brescoll, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management. “All women workers, regardless of their status or the reason for their request, face a gendered wall of resistance to their requests for flextime, while men face status-specific resistance.”
To study the circumstances under which managers are willing to grant their employees flexible work schedules, the researchers asked managers to react to scenarios of employees requesting flextime in the form of a shift in work hours. The scenarios varied in whether an employee was male or female, in a high-status managerial job or a lower-status hourly wage job, and the reason for the flextime request—either for childcare or to take professional development classes.
The researchers also examined employees’ expectations of success in receiving a flexible work schedule if they requested it, and their concerns about experiencing a backlash. They found that employees do not accurately predict managers’ biases in granting flexible schedules. Women in high-status jobs requesting flextime for career advancement were the most likely to think their requests would be granted, while men in high-status jobs were the least likely to believe they would receive flextime for career development reasons.
“Women may be underestimating the negative consequences of asking and overestimating their true probability of success,” says Brescoll. Both sexes underestimated their probabilities of being granted flextime. Brescoll notes that worker pessimism and fear of backlash may suppress flexible scheduling in the U.S. “Suppressing flexible scheduling has a range of implications, including the persistence of child poverty and lower productivity and unnecessary labor turnover for firms.”
Past research has shown that women tend to advance in their careers more slowly than men. Stepping off of the career ladder to take time off for child rearing is the most commonly cited reason, but Brescoll says this study offers an additional explanation.
“If scheduling leeway to pursue career advancement is granted to men who are already in high-status positions, that may contribute to their more rapid career advancement. It may also be that the association between women and motherhood is so strong that even high-status women requesting flextime to advance their careers might be suspected of hiding the true reason for their request, or they may be viewed as less deserving of further training because it’s assumed that they’ll leave their jobs in the future. There’s an actuarial mistrust of women workers that even women who have proven themselves by achieving high-status jobs and asking for more career training can’t overcome.”
“Ask and Ye Shall Receive? The Dynamics of Employer-Provided Flexible Work Options and the Need for Public Policy,” is published in the Journal of Social Issues.
Victoria Brescoll is assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management. Jennifer Glass is the Barbara Bush Professor of Liberal Arts in the Department of Sociology and research associate of the Population Research Center at the University of Texas-Austin. Alexandra Sedlovskaya is a senior researcher at Harvard Business School.