Workplace Flexibility

The push for more flexibility in the workplace is slowly gathering steam.  The media addresses it more often, legislation has been proposed (Working Families Flexibility Act to make comp time available but NOT mandated to private sector employees), and SHRM and other member organizations are working in concert to push the dialogue.

But bluntly put, we won’t get there without the men in the workplace.  And it is no bed of roses for them either.  Scott Behson writing for Harvard Business Review details a couple of salient findings from a survey conducted by the UC Hasting College of the Law.  He notes the following:

  • Dual-income, shared-care families are far more the norm than families with a single-earner and an at-home spouse.
  • Today’s fathers spend three times as much time with their children and twice as much time on housework than dads did a generation ago, and
  • Men aspire to be even more involved in their families than they are.

So men both have and experience great flexibility at work, right?  Not so much:

  • While men value work flexibility, they are reluctant to seek out flexible work arrangements because of fears of being seen as uncommitted and unmanly, and expectations of potential career consequences. These fears, unfortunately, prove to be well-founded.
  • Fathers who engage in higher than average levels of childcare are subject to more workplace harassment (e.g., picked on for “not being man enough”) and more general mistreatment (e.g., garden variety workplace aggression) as compared to their low-caregiving or childless counterparts.
  • Men requesting family leave are perceived as uncommitted to work and less masculine; these perceptions are linked to lower performance evaluations, increased risks of being demoted or downsized, and reduced pay and rewards.

So if men want flexibility and females want flexibility, why isn’t it happening?

Behson focuses on the long held cultural beliefs that under gird perceptions of male responsibilities for work.  The stories in his article detail stigmatism in the workplace that is virtually identical to that experienced by females, right down to lower lifetime earnings for pursuing flexibility.  I concur with Behson that the culture will have to change, and that won’t happen with merely passive participation by males.

My concern is far the more stubborn and practical barriers:  Organizational size, job designs and pay.  The vast majority of us work for small companies with around 50 employees.  Today’s organizational structures are flatter and likely certain to stay that way.  Fewer people are doing more work. How does flexibility function when there is no one to absorb the work?  What if the jobs in a small organization are so interdependent that flexibility compromises other roles?

Pay is the biggest kahuna of all.  There remains a close correlation between the volume and consistency of work and pay.  I don’t believe that is going to change.  Women know full well that putting their family first has definite implications for life-time earnings and career opportunities.  Men who make the same choices will experience the same outcomes because gender has nothing to do with it.  The work is going to be done one way or another, by one person or another (unless it is by a robot with killer AI, in which case the point is moot).  Fathers who make this choice, just like the mothers before them, will find themselves likely surpassed in pay and opportunity by males and females who made different choices.  I don’t think this is necessarily wrong or unfair since either decision could be best or most fulfilling for the individual.  The ongoing discussion of workplace flexibility needs to bring this outcome into high relief if we intend to be honest with men.