Is a nasty cold keeping your kid out of daycare? If you and your spouse can’t decide which one of you should bite the bullet and work from home while keeping an eye on your sniffling cutie, new research suggests an easy way to resolve the issue, at least for heterosexual couples: Choose the dad.
A study out of Furman University in South Carolina found that fathers asking to work from home twice a week — a “flexplace” request — were viewed more favorably than mothers who asked for the same courtesy.
The men asking for flexplace were “perceived as more respectable, likeable, committed and promotion worthy than women who make the same request,” lead author Christin Munsch, an assistant professor of sociology, concluded in her study report.
Munsch got her results after asking more than 600 people to read a transcript of a supposedly real conversation between an employee and a human resources manager. Different study participants read different transcripts, with key variables being the employee’s gender, whether they were requesting flextime — working nontraditional hours — or flexplace, and their reasons for doing so.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first: Employees requesting any sort of flexwork were given lower marks than those who didn’t — a finding that echoed previous studies. So, that’s bad news for parents in general, as well as just about anyone else who would like a life outside of work. It is, however, great news for people who enjoy living in their cubicles: It’s time to party, folks! (Just kidding. Get back to work!)
People without kids won’t be thrilled with another finding: when an employee did request flexwork, he or she was rated more highly if they offered childcare as the rationale — as opposed to, say, training for a bike race … So if you really do want to dedicate significant amounts of time practicing for a cycling competition, maybe just pretend you have a kid? (Also kidding … I think.)
Now the bad news for moms and good news for dads …
Munsch found a real gender disparity when it came to flexplace requests. Nearly 70 percent of people who read transcripts featuring a dad asking to work remotely for childcare reasons said they would approve the employee’s request. For transcripts featuring a mom, the approval rate dropped to just under 57 percent.
In addition, as mentioned earlier, study participants gave fathers higher ratings on likeability, promotion potential, and more. That, in particular, falls in line with findings from previous studies that men with children get a “fatherhood bonus” and are regarded more highly than male employees who aren’t dads.
So why were dads more likely to get a pass? Munsch chalks it up to commonly-held beliefs about how men and women differ in their childcare responsibilities.
“Because women are more likely to do labor-intensive, time-sensitive tasks at home and men are more likely to do passive tasks that allow them to engage in other activities, when people evaluate flexplace requests, they may assume fathers, but not mothers, will be able to work while caring for children,” she wrote in her report.
In other words, even in this supposedly more egalitarian era, people may imagine a dad working from home as sitting diligently at his computer while Junior plays in the next room, while the perception of a mom working from home may be someone giving the kids a bath, driving them to a doctor’s appointment, cooking dinner and, oh yeah, squeezing some work in between.
Munsch’s results were surprising to me, personally, because when I talked to fathers recently about work/life balance, many of them aired gripes we frequently hear from working mothers. The idea that fathers actually have it better than mothers with respect to flexwork — or, at least, the option of working remotely — contradicts what some dads told me about being stigmatized more than moms when making child-related work requests.
Then again, I didn’t do a scientific study.
So how much can Munsch’s findings be applied to the real world? That’s debatable. The study wasn’t limited to only bosses who would make flexwork decisions in real life — some of the study participants were as young as 18. As Munsch notes, her experiment is no substitute for researching real situations faced by managers and employees. “Additional research in field settings is necessary,” she wrote.
In many cases, getting a supervisor to approve a flexplace request might be more dependent on how you present your request than what your gender is. David Bakke, a writer for the personal finance website Money Crashers, said he convinced a previous employer to let him and fellow members of his team work from home with a compelling argument.
“I pointed out that we all had various computer responsibilities that could be completed from home, all without affecting business operations,” Bakke told me. “Although I only got approval for one afternoon per week, I did achieve my goal.”
Company culture also likely plays a key role. I spoke to a few other dads who work from home on occasion without difficulty — they said that if there is a gender bias for flexwork at their companies, they haven’t noticed it. Nor do they think that they’re benefiting from any fatherhood bonus.
“There are probably a few of the older partners who’d look down on (telecommuting), but the people I work for probably just view it as what we have to do sometimes,” Marc, an attorney at a New York law firm told me. It’s “not especially laudable,” he said, “just part of being an involved dad.”
Of course, dads like Marc have no way of knowing for sure whether they’re being treated better than their mom colleagues. I hope Munsch or another researcher does pursue the field work necessary to figure this out.
Until then, let’s put dads on sick-kid duty, you know, just to be on the safe side.
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