New study: Men seeking work-life balance are seen more favorably than women

Christin Munsch, professor of sociology at Furman University in San Francisco, has recently conducted a study on flexible work arrangements. Her spectacular results suggest that it is men rather than women who can take advantage out of such arrangements, while women might experience disadvantages. How is that possible and what does it mean for work/life-balance programmes and Gender Diversity in the workplace? A closer look provides some of the answers.

For the study, Munsch used a sample of 646 people between 18 and 65 years old, residing in the U.S., who were asked to read a transcript presented to them as an actual conversation between a human resources representative and an employee. The researchers prepared different versions of this fictitious conversation transcript. In one version, the employee either asked for flexible work arrangement or did not. Then, for those who requested more flexibility, there were two different modes of flexible working proposed by the employee as well as different reasons for their request (e.g. including child care or not). Furthermore, Munsch varied the employees’ gender to detect gender-related effects. After having read the transcript, the study participants were put into the shoes of the human resources representative; they were supposed to indicate how likely they would be to accept the request. In addition, they were asked to evaluate the employee on specified categories, such as likability, commitment, dependability, and dedication.

The results were surprising and their impact seems to contradict the popular view that workplace flexibility is a useful instrument to help women reconciling work and family life. Munsch found that men asking for the possibility to work from home for childcare reasons were granted this arrangement by nearly 70% of participants (“likely” or “very likely” to accept the request). When woman were asking to work from home to care for their children –ceteris paribus –only 56% were likely to agree with the arrangement. In this scenario, it is especially interesting to look at the number of 24.3% of participants who consider the man to be “extremely likeable”, while –again ceteris paribus –only 3% described a woman in the same situation this way. Women requesting more workplace flexibility were seen less committed to their work than their male colleagues (15.5% compared to 2.7%). “The results show the enormous effect of gender-role compliance in the interpretation and evaluation of people and situations – just as it happens everyday in business and HR processes”, Diversity expert Michael Stuber comments the result and confirms many similar discussions in workshops he runs with managers.

Even in private situations, such biases occur quite often: Men are often seen as the main breadwinner and people are therefore grateful, when fathers assume childcare tasks. They will even be thanked for picking up their child twenty minutes late from school. Women, in contrast, are expected to assume both work and family roles and will be perceived negatively when not performing. They report to be fiercely criticized when picking up their child only a few minutes late.

In practical terms, the studyshows the importance of taking a deeper dive and encouraging organisations to reflect their unwritten rules and invisible norms along with assumptions about different groups of people. Otherwise, D&I programmes would easily stay at the surface, creating nice tools while biases would reconfirm existing stereotypes. “This is particularly true for women development programmes or women-focused work/life communication”, Stuber comments. If Gender Diversity and Work/Life-Flexibility are managed in a comprehensive way, companies and employees will greatly benefit. Studies indicate that employees reporting a satisfactory work/life-balance show reduced absenteeism, less turnover, higher motivation and more commitment to their employer.