How Women and Men Use Flexible Work Policies Differently

A new study of MBAs shows that women are more likely to telecommute, while men are more likely to use flexible working hours.
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Flexible work arrangements can be an essential way for many people to balance work and family demands, despite recent news that Yahoo, Best Buy, Zappos, and Bank of America would eliminate or restrict telecommuting. Discussion often focuses on how women, especially mothers, use flexibility, but a new survey by Catalyst shows that men work flexibly throughout their careers, too.

Catalyst surveyed 726 MBA graduates, male and female, who work full-time in different industries, both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. Asked about their experience with flexible work arrangements, 81 percent said their employer offers some, including telecommuting, flex time (flexibility in when work is conducted across the week), flexible arrival and departure times, compressed work weeks, job sharing, and reduced schedules. Half of the people surveyed said flexibility was very or extremely important to them.

Men and women did not differ significantly in their use of flex time, flexible arrival and departure time, job sharing, and compressed workweeks, according to Catalyst. Men, however, reported using telecommuting significantly less than women did (29 versus 39 percent). Further, men were almost twice as likely to say they had never telecommuted during their careers. Instead, flexible arrival and departure time was the favorite option for 64 percent of the men, followed by flex time for 30 percent of them. The report does not explain the telecommuting gender gap, though the men surveyed simply may not need work location flexibility if they have no children, a stay-at-home wife, or little responsibility for family matters--not to mention some guys just may avoid or not see home front duties.

On the other hand, men may have a gut feeling that working away from the office will elicit career penalties. Indeed, Catalyst voices explicit concern that the telecommuting gender gap produces an unintended consequence: fewer hours in the office hours means less face-to-face contact with colleagues, sponsors, and leaders, potentially hindering a person's career advancement. Their concern is legitimate. Research shows that employees who work remotely are likely to receive poorer performance evaluations, smaller raises, and fewer promotions than their in-office colleagues.

A Human Relations study of hundreds of workers, both supervisors and subordinates, found that managers make inferences that the people they see in the office during normal business hours are "responsible" and "dependable." Further, those who the boss sees arriving early, staying late, or coming in on weekends are judged "committed" and "dedicated." The study's authors, Kimberly Elsbach and Daniel Cable, explain that the boss's attributions may be unconscious and unintentional but nonetheless produce biased performance appraisals. Some of the telecommuters in fact worked longer and harder than their in-office colleagues, but physically present people still received higher ratings as leaders and teammates.

Catalyst asks managers to assess whether remote workers advance less quickly than others in the organization and, if so, to increase their visibility, thereby leveling the playing field. Elsbach and Cable add that supervisors should avoid using perceptions of traits like "commitment" and "dependability" in performance evaluations and promotion decisions, replacing them with measurable outputs such as the number and type of projects completed, or with expert evaluations of a project's quality. In short, focus on a person's work results, not where the work gets done. That way more men and women can add telecommuting to their work-life repertoire.

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Nanette Fondas is co-author of The Custom-Fit WorkplaceHer work appears in academic journals as well as Psychology Today, Ms., Huffington Post and MomsRising.

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