The daddy dilemma: Why men face a ‘flexibility stigma’ at work


(Pete Ryan)
February 11, 2013

When children were asked in a 1999 study whether they spend enough time with their parents, they had something interesting to say. They have quite enough time with their mothers, thank you. What they wanted was more time with their fathers.

Not too much has changed in the past decade. Just recently, I heard yet another story of a father who wanted to work less in order to spend more time with his children. He overheard his daughter telling friends that, although she lives in Oakland, her daddy lives in San Francisco. (He works there.) He’s home so little, she got confused.

And no wonder. Roughly 40 percent of college-educated men work 50 hours a week or more — often much more — compared with just 14 percent of college-educated women. Men who work 50 to 60 hours a week want to work an average of 13 fewer hours; those working more than 60 hours a week would prefer to work a stunning 25 less.

As a result, it’s little surprise that fathers actually now report higher levels of work-family conflict than mothers do. In a 2011 study, the Families and Work Institute found that 60 percent of fathers in dual-earner households say they experience some or a lot of work-life conflict, compared with just 35 percent in 1977. Meanwhile, the level of work-life conflict reported by similar working mothers has not changed significantly in three decades.

Why don’t more men push for change?

The answer is what I call the “flexibility stigma.” The topic may be one that’s traditionally associated with women, but in a forthcoming special publication of the Journal of Social Issues I’m co-editing, four of the nine articles actually address how much such policies impact men. What’s the bottom line from the researchers’ findings? Men face as many struggles when it comes to using flexible work policies — if not more — because child care, fairly or unfairly, is still seen as being a feminine role.

This is not the first time researchers have looked at how men fare when it comes to flexibility at work. In 2003, one group found that men who ask for family leave suffer more negative reactions than women who ask for the same. The next year, another study found that men who took even a short time off for family reasons were given lower recommendations and poorer overall performance ratings. A few years later, researchers found that as long as a father can avoid looking like he has child-care responsibilities, having kids actually helps his career. He is given higher starting salaries than a childless man and is held to lower performance and punctuality standards.

The new research goes further by trying to address why men experience such stigmas. For instance, in one case, participants were asked to rate men and women who took family leaves and those who did not. If the employee was a man and took time off, he was less likely to be recommended for promotions, raises or high-profile assignments. What became clear was not just that men were penalized for taking leaves, but why. They were seen as bad workers precisely because they were thought to have traits traditionally viewed as feminine: being weak, insecure, emotional or naïve. In other words, the flexibility stigma is a femininity stigma.

This finding was confirmed by researchers who found that men and women are equally likely to want a flexible schedule. (Only compensation ranked as a bigger goal for both sexes.) But men were much less likely to say they planned to ask for one. Why? Many men feared that asking for a flexible schedule would make them seem more, well, feminine. And those who actually did take the risk of making the request were likely to shy away from asking for as much flexibility as they really wanted.

Meanwhile, another study found that in a male-dominated workplace, men who did more child care received more “masculinity harassment” than any other group of employees. (The term probably doesn’t need explanation, but refers to derogatory comments related to a worker’s masculinity.) Fathers who helped to take care of their kids also faced the highest rate of general mistreatment, including being teased, put down or excluded.

Unfortunately, even in today’s world of stay-at-home dads and dual-income households, “who wears the pants in your house?” continues to be the operative logic in many cases when men request family leave or flexibility. It’s a sobering message for employers: creating such policies is only half the battle. Until workplaces eliminate the stigma often associated with these benefits — for men as well as women — leaders will only be addressing half the problem for half their workforce.

Joan C. Williams is the founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law and a professor at the University of California, Hastings College of Law.

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