Flex-time ruse: Does working flexibly harm women?

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When my daughter was born almost two years ago, I started working part time, and more flexibly. It was easy enough to give up my online editing job in favor of the kinds of projects that could be completed on my own schedule, and I'd wanted to make the jump from editor to writer for a while. Plus, the thought of juggling a full workweek and a new baby — all while my husband routinely worked 60-plus hours a week — just made me want to take a really long nap.

This decision makes me part of the American vanguard. The popular narrative in recent articles about gender equality in the workplace often laments the lack of family friendly policies and workplaces in the U.S.

If only we were less like Marissa Mayer's new Yahoo and more like European countries, the story goes, which have spent the last 20 years busily implementing changes like generous paid family leave and protections for part-time workers, American women wouldn't be opting out in such large numbers.

In other words, if only all women had access to generous parental leave and the kind of flexibility that I had taken advantage of, all our gender equality problems would be solved.

But family friendly policies create their own set of problems.There are a couple reasons why these policies can have the unintended consequence of harming women's long-term career prospects.

“Employers may be less interested in women as a group for jobs that require commitment to the labor force and higher-level jobs because they might start to perceive women as a group as individuals who may be the in and out of the labor force,” said Francine D. Blau, a noted economist who has studied the issue.

The availability of longer parental leave and part-time work also encourages women to, well, actually take long parental leaves and request part-time working arrangements. This kind of work-life balance may make for happier women, but research has repeatedly shown that such alternate career arrangements are still quite harmful to women's incomes and career advancements.

Extended job interruptions also take a heavy toll on women's earnings. The economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz have a paper that looks at the cost of workplace flexibility, including job interruptions, across a variety of “high-powered” professions over the last 40 years. The costs vary considerably across disciplines, but “MBAs give up 41 percent (of their earnings), Ph.D.s and J.D.s 29 percent, and M.D.s just 16 percent for a job interruption equivalent to 18 months during the 15 years after receiving their BA.” Even overly generous maternity leave policies are associated with higher gender wage gaps.

Viewed in this light, my casual decision to spend my afternoons stacking blocks with my daughter starts to look a little riskier.

Of course, not everyone wants to be a CEO or the executive editor of the New York Times, and what holds back highly privileged, upper-class women may be life-saving for others.

“Suppose it's true, suppose some of these programs have the effect of lowering the glass ceiling,” says Janet Gornick, a professor of political science and sociology at CUNY who's studied workplace flexibility extensively. “You're trading off — maybe you're harming the top 10 percent, but the bottom 90 really need this stuff. If you're a working class, single mom, you want to be in Sweden. If you want to be a CEO, maybe you want to live in the U.S.”

So what's a well-meaning policymaker to do?

“You know, it's a very hard tradeoff between allowing and encouraging women to participate as much as they can at various times in their life cycle,” acknowledges Blau. “And actually encouraging them to have a lesser commitment.”

Reducing the stigma associated with the kinds of detours and flexible work arrangements that can help facilitate women's careers may be the best way to improve gender equality in the U.S. Norms around family-friendly policies clearly are changing for the better. According to Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, the costs of workplace flexibility have declined in every profession. For example, 36 percent of female pediatricians worked part-time hours in 2006, up from 28 percent in 2000.

“I've been watching over a long period of time and employers are getting more interested in this issue,” said Blau. “And one way to look at it is if you look at the graduates of these programs, there are lots of women. I think firms have an incentive to be concerned.”

Despite this progress, however, stigmas persist, even in academia, which Anne-Marie Slaughter praised for its flexible scheduling. One academic, who briefly worked a reduced schedule when her children were small, apologetically declined my interview request, explaining that she just didn't feel comfortable advertising her previous part-time status as she's about to be considered for full professor. Family-friendly policies may be the best way to encourage women to remain in the workforce, but as long as these kinds of alternative arrangements and career paths are overwhelmingly utilized by women and ignored by men, workers will pay a price for taking advantage of them.

For her part, Francine Blau points to one reform that's unambiguously good for children, women of all classes, and gender equality: subsidized, high-quality child care. “It really dovetails with another problem that I've been recently concerned with — rising inequality in our country,” she says. “I'd love to see more emphasis on universal pre-K programs.”

Dwyer Gunn is co-editor of the Freakonomics blog.

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