Nanette Fondas

Nanette Fondas

WorkLife Matters

Dudes Get Flex

It's caregiving, not gender, that matters most.

Posted Oct 30, 2014

Dudes are evolving. That’s one message from a new Working Mother Research Institute survey, sponsored by Ernst & Young. It shows a sea change in men’s attitudes about how to combine job responsibilities and family commitments. Goodbye rigid gender roles; hello flexibility at work and at home.

How Men Flex: The Working Mother Report finds men today embrace the idea and practice of working flexibly to relieve the simultaneous pressures of job and family demands. About eight in 10 of the 1000 men surveyed say they have flexible work schedules (77%) and feel comfortable using flextime and telecommuting (79%).  Their answers make sense, for they also say both parents should equally share child care (88 percent) and chores (83%), and they report allocating the time saved by working-from-home to caregiving and household responsibilities. They do what many flex-working moms do: quit early to spend time with children or attend school events, and then log back on after bedtime. Three-quarters of the men believe “a parent should be home with children after school.” But that parent does not have to be the mom: 80 percent of the men are comfortable with mom as primary breadwinner, 65 percent feel working mothers set a positive example for kids, and even 39 percent would prefer to be stay-at-home dads.

One noteworthy finding is a gaping disparity in satisfaction between men working in companies that encourage flexibility, versus men working for employers that could, but don’t, support flex. The former are significantly more satisfied than the latter with career prospects (72% versus 40%), skill development opportunities (74% versus 48%), respect received (81% versus 55%), compensation (68% versus 40%), and even support from a spouse or partner at home to accomplish work tasks (71% versus 53%). An image of the man with flexibility rises like a hologram from the pages of the report: he is happy, engaged, loyal, and productive—as well as sturdy in his masculinity.

That is, as long as he is not working-from-home full time. That sub-group of men is the most stressed—even more than men with no flex at all. They feel isolated (52%) and unable to escape work (58%). They sense that their commitment to work is questioned by others. Indeed, they are wise to be wary, because a recent academic study, published in the Academy of Management Proceedings, finds that managers often interpret a person’s use of flex-work options as a signal of high or low job commitment. Specifically, the research found that if a boss attributes an employee’s need for flex to personal-life reasons like child care, as opposed to job performance enhancement reasons like acquiring new skills, the boss tends to assess the employee as less committed and, unfortunately, less deserving of career rewards such as raises and promotions.  

Further, in a series of four experiments, these researchers demonstrate that a person’s supervisor is more likely to attribute the use of flex to personal-family-life needs if the employee is a parent, unleashing a negative chain of attributions and events:  assessing his work commitment as lower than that of non-parents, and seeing him as less deserving of rewards. This, in turn, reduces the likelihood that the manager will recommend a pay raise, bonus, or promotion.  Indeed, the manager may recommend what the authors call a career penalty: reduced responsibility or outright demotion or firing.

The irony is that flexible work policies most likely designed to ease parents’ work-family tensions may, in practice, sometimes hamper career progress for parents. But the study’s core finding, that an employee’s parental status—not gender and not mothers versus fathers—triggers the negative attributions offers, oddly, a silver lining.  It moves the conversation away from flexibility and family-friendly polices as a women’s issue, and nudges it toward caregiving as the human issue employees and employers must acknowledge and solve. Managers surely sense a critical challenge is about to land on their plates. But they and their organizations can adapt, as other research has shown. And, returning to the men in the Working Mother Research Institute survey, eight out of ten managers acknowledge that employees should have access to flexible work options, even though 39 percent admit to wishing they didn't have to tackle such a tough management task. That’s an evolved understanding of the basic human desire and obligation to care for one another that bodes well for both dudes and their families.