A recent study at a university found that workplaces can turn toxic when employees resent coworkers who are parents and who need flexible work schedules to manage child care responsibilities.
“As researchers, we’re interested in understanding the gap between the traditional 9-to-5 work setting and what workers actually need,” says Erin Cech, assistant professor of sociology at Rice University.
“The majority of parents are in the workforce today, yet the expectations and arrangements of work have stayed more or less the same as they were post-World War II. We’re trying to understand this mismatch and its consequences.”
The study shows that people who report an awareness of a “flexibility stigma” in their departments, regardless of whether they are parents themselves, are less interested in staying at their jobs, more likely to want to leave academia for industry, and less satisfied with their jobs than those who did not report a flexibility stigma in their department. They also feel as though they have worse work-life balance.
“Flexibility stigma is not just a workers’ problem,” says study co-author Mary Blair-Loy, associate professor of sociology at University of California, San Diego and founding director of the Center for Research on Gender in the Professions.
“Workplaces where this bias exists are more likely to have a toxic culture that hurts the entire department, not only in terms of work-life balance but also retention and job satisfaction, which may affect department productivity.”
The study sheds light on workplace issues across a wide spectrum of professional fields, researchers suggest.
“Because this is an academic setting, faculty tend to have a great deal of freedom to re-arrange their busy schedules to accommodate family responsibilities,” Cech says.
“We imagine that the effects of flexibility stigma on job satisfaction and employee turnover might be even more counterproductive in professional workplaces that have less schedule control. Dealing with work-life balance issues is not just about instituting the right polices, but it is also about undermining the stigma that comes along with using those policies.”
Cost of flexibility stigma
One consequence of flexibility stigma—employee turnover—can be expensive, Cech says.
“It can be extremely costly, on average, between $90,000 and $400,000 when accounting for lab space and student assistants, for startup packages for new science and engineering faculty. This suggests that reducing flexibility stigma would not only be good for workers, but good for the bottom line as well.”
The work-devotion schema, the idea that one’s career requires intense time commitments and strong loyalty, is a mandate that is unconsciously part of most professional workplaces and underlies the flexibility stigma, Blair-Loy says.
“Work devotion is useful for employers because it helps motivate senior management, but is destructive to people trying to care for family members. It underlies this stigma that is damaging to all members of the department, not just the ones that are parents.”
The silver lining of the research suggests that many faculty who are not currently parents are aware of the flexibility stigma, she says.
“These individuals can be real allies in making a more inclusive, welcoming environment for everyone. It provides the opportunity to broaden awareness of problematic work environments and educate others about this bias.”
Published in the journal Work and Occupation, the study included 266 science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) faculty members at a top-ranked university with science and engineering programs.
Respondents answered online survey questions about whether mothers and fathers with young or school-aged children are perceived as less committed to their careers than women or men who are not parents, and whether individuals choosing to use formal or informal arrangements for work-life balance experience negative career consequences.
The National Science Foundation supported the project.
Source: Rice University