Bias Favors Men Over Women When Asking for Flexible Work Hours

Working mother

Flexible work hours have often seemed like the ideal solution for a working mom: maintain a career while also finding time to take care of the kids. But a new study out this week has found that flex time work requests are perceived very differently by employers depending on the gender of the person filing the request and that men, rather than women, may be the ones who have benefited the most from this new opportunity.

A group of 646 participants evenly split between men and women looked at a fake transcript of a conversation between an HR representative and an employee about flexible work hours. The reason for the request varied. For some, it had to do with having kids at home. For others, it had to do with wanting to cut down on commute time or wanting to reduce one’s carbon footprint. Half the time the worker’s name was Kevin, the other half the name was Karen. After reading the transcript, participants were asked to answer questions about the employees’ likability, competence and likelihood to achieve flex-work goals.

The researchers found a distinct advantage to being a father requesting flex time over a mother requesting flex time. Almost a quarter of raters found the fathers to be “extremely likeable,” compared to only 3% of mothers. Seven out of 10 said they thought the father would be “likely” or “very likely” to have the request approved, but only a little over half thought the mother’s request likely to be approved.

The bias translated into perceived commitment to the job, too. Only 2.7% of raters thought the father was “not at all” or “not very” committed to their job as a result of the request, but almost one in six or 16% thought the mother was “not at all” or “not very” committed by the end of the conversation.

The researchers think the results may have to do with an incomplete transition to full equality in the way we think about the roles of men and women in society. We take for granted that women care for children and expect that if they choose to work, they knowingly take on both responsibilities. On the other hand, we expect men to be the breadwinner and don’t anticipate his involvement in care for children. That means that when he does, we think of it as more of a sacrifice since it’s an added responsibility above and beyond what we expect.

The authors emphasize that this is not an argument against flexible work hours, which can benefit working parents. Of note, raters were much more likely to think a request would be approved if the reason was related to parenting compared to other reasons. They point out though that many had assumed flex time was empowering mothers to balance their working and domestic life, which may not be the case. Rather than eliminating these options, they say employers should try to be aware of their gender biases when requests for flex time are made.