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The Secret Stigma of Workplace Flexibility

work discriminationA recent New York Times article asks readers to consider whether they would take the option of  determining for themselves when and where they worked: you could come in early to be home in time to watch your children, or spend part of a week working from home. Maybe you’d opt to cut back on hours for a while to care for a sick family member. What would the consequences be if you took one of these options?

According to Joan Williams, director of the Center for Work-Life Law at the University of California, these policies are quite common on the books, “but informally everyone knows you are penalized for using them.” Williams claims she “invented the term ‘flexibility stigma’ to describe that phenomenon. Recent studies have found that it is alive and well, and it functions quite differently for women than it does for men.”

In the case of female workers, employers may gain a reason to perceive them in the light of motherhood, which can trigger gender discrimination. Mothers are considered less competent and less committed to their careers, she said, citing some major studies on gender stereotypes.  But less expected is the fact that men who opt for greater flexibility can be penalized more harshly than female counterparts, simply because they’re perceived as less masculine, and as straying from traditional roles of “fully committed” breadwinners.

Employment Discrimination

Such a perception may partially explain why flexible work options — including telecommuting, shortened work weeks and dividing jobs among employees — has not caught on as quickly as one might expect, despite the fact that more and more employers are offering them.  But at the same time employers have reduced alternatives that might enable workers to spend significant periods away from full-time work, such as career breaks or moving in and out of part-time and full-time status. These arrangements can also affect the amount of workers’ compensation and other benefits an employee receives. If you want to appeal a denied L&I claim, contact an employment attorney.

In The Journal of Social Issues, researchers published a recent study on the stigma of workplace flexibility from multiple angles. One issue they analyzed was the consequences of men taking leave after a child was born, where they found that such men ran a higher risk of being penalized and compromised their chances for promotion. When professional women took time off work after having children, they were often re-assigned to less meaningful tasks and positions upon returning. In addition, the researchers examining how the perception of flexible arrangements changed across class lines: wealthier women are often encouraged to stay at home, while less-affluent women are commonly told that they shouldn’t have had children at all.

However, American families are clearly looking for greater workplace flexibility, particularly as traditional gender roles assigned to mothers and fathers erode. The most recent study of the Society for Human Resource Management shows that 34% of human resources offices reported an increase in requests for these arrangements since the previous year.

Currently, about 75% of women are employed in the United States working, which is lower than many countries where 80% or more work outside the home. Researchers estimate that American women’s participation in the workforce would be closer to 82% if they had access to policies found in other countries, such as the right to part-time work.

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Emery Reddy