February 13, 2014 Practice Points

"Flexibility Stigma: The Unspoken Problem Facing Working Women and Men"

By Claudia D. Hartleben

In the January 2014 Glasshammer.com article, “Flexibility Stigma: The Unspoken Problem Facing Working Women and Men,” readers encounter a re-hashing of the well-known stigma associated with taking advantage of flexible work options. To that extent, the article is not groundbreaking. However, the article revealed interesting findings about the particular circumstances under which managers are willing to grant their employees flexible work schedules.

In discussing the stigma, the article references the June 2013 study, “Ask and Ye Shall Receive? The Dynamics of Employer-Provided Flexible Work Options and the Need for Public Policy,” wherein Professor Victoria Brescoll concluded that managers are most likely to grant flexible work schedules to men in high-status jobs who request flextime to pursue career advancement opportunities. This is as opposed to women who, regardless of job status, are unlikely to be granted flextime for either family or career reasons. Brescoll reached this conclusion by studying managers’ reactions to flextime requests under varied circumstances, e.g. whether the request was made by a man or woman, in a high-status, managerial job or lower status, hourly wage jobs, and whether the request was for childcare or professional development classes. Brescoll commented that “women workers, regardless of their status or reason for their request, face a gendered wall of resistance to their requests for flextime, while men face status-specific resistance.”

Yet, recent studies also confirm that both men and women are stigmatized when requesting flextime, because they are viewed as less committed to their work and their output is perceived to be compromised. Such beliefs appear to be unfounded, based on Catalyst’s 2013 study “The Great Debate: Flexibility vs. Face Time – Busting the Myths Behind Flexible Work Arrangements,” which found that face time does not lead to top performance outcomes.

These studies would tend to support an effort to de-stigmatize flexible work options for both genders. Sara Sutton Fell, CEO and founder of FlexJobs, a job search service that helps professionals find flexible jobs, is hoping to do just that by highlighting accolades of companies that are flextime friendly. Ultimately, Fell adds, “women who request flexible work options need to focus on how it will benefit the company . . . not on how it will benefit them personally.” For women in particular, flexible work options often mean the difference between being able to continue working after having children, or giving up their careers.

Finally, the article concludes that working women and men can do nothing “to eliminate the stigma they face when seeking out and attaining flexible work arrangements; it’s not their mess to clean up.” Rather, the onus is on employers to be willing to be as transparent as possible by creating formal flexible work time programs that outline all options available to employees, thereby dispelling the cloudiness associated with these work options.


Keywords: woman advocate, litigation, work-life balance, flexible work schedule, stigma, research

Claudia D. Hartleben works at Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle LLP in Washington, D.C.

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