Paternity Leave and the Flexibility Stigma

In 1989, sociologist Arlie Hochschild published  The Second Shift, a book about her long-term study of  how a group of employees balanced their work and their family commitments. The title of the book referred to the employees putting in a shift of work at their workplace, and then going home to undertake another round of work in managing their households and their families. The book was hugely influential in many ways, not least of which was Hochschild’s finding that even when the employees had access to flexible work arrangements, such as compressed work schedules or flextime, they were reluctant to use them. Even if flexible work arrangements would have helped the employees better manage the demands of their two “shifts”, the employees – especially the male ones – thought their careers would be hurt if they were perceived as being less than committed to their jobs or to their employer.

But that was 1989. Things are different now. Or are they?

Two weeks ago, sports radio talk show hosts Boomer Esiason and Mike Francesa took it upon themselves to criticize New York Mets baseball player Daniel Murphy. The reason for their criticism? Murphy took paternity leave on the opening day of the 2014 Major League Baseball season, because his wife was in Florida giving birth to their first child. The 2011 MLB collective agreement guarantees MLB players three days of paternity leave. But Esiason and Francesa didn’t just criticize Murphy’s decision to take paternity leave and miss the opening day game – they also criticized the idea of paternity leave itself. Francesa called it “a scam and a half”, and said, “I don’t know why you need three days off…I mean, you see the birth and then you get back. Your wife doesn’t need your help in the first couple of days, you know that.”

Happily, several of Esiason’s and Francesa’s listeners immediately called in to disagree with these completely-out-of-touch-with-reality opinions. But another excellent response came a few days later, from MSNBC host Chris Hayes – who happened to be on paternity leave himself, after the birth of his second child. While Hayes was entirely right in labelling Esiason and Francesa’s comments as “crap”, he also said some very important things about the pressure not to take paternity leave in many workplaces.

There’s this labor aspect, which I mentioned in the beginning, which is, like, don’t listen to the propaganda that tells you, you can’t do it, particularly if your workplace has a policy that says you can. Like, don’t listen to the kind of — the institutional side-eye you might get for it, which is what we`re seeing right now…The collective bargaining is there. And we’re seeing this force being brought to bear on Murphy outside of the actual contours of that legal agreement between the union and management. It’s another way of the bosses trying to keep you down. That’s what it is. And do not mistake it for anything else.

As it happens,  two newly published research articles, in the journal Work and Occupations, say pretty much what Hayes is saying. These articles have some fascinating insights into the “flexibility bias” and the “flexibility stigma” – the workplace attitudes that discourage workers from using flexible work arrangements, even when those arrangements could make their work or home lives more enjoyable or easier to manage. The “flexibility bias” and the “flexibility stigma” are exactly what Hayes is getting at when he talks about “propaganda that tells you, you can’t do it…[even] if your workplace has a policy that says you can.”

MSNBC's Chris Hayes, starting his paternity leave. (credit: msnbc.com)

MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, starting his paternity leave. (credit: msnbc.com)

In their article Pluralistic Ignorance and the Flexibility Bias: Understanding and Mitigating Flextime and Flexplace Bias at Work, Christin Munsch, Cecilia Ridgeway and Joan Williams discuss the idea of “pluralistic ignorance” – whether workers who disapprove of other workers using flexible work arrangements are disapproving because they perceive that disapproval is how they are supposed to react, even if they privately support the idea. The authors also investigated whether there were different levels of support for different kinds of flexible work arrangements.

The authors recruited 409 survey participants through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk website, and gave each participant one of two transcripts of a fictitious discussion between a human resources staffer and an employee. In the “flextime” transcript, the employee asked to start and leave work early three days a week; in the “flexplace” transcript, the employee asked to work from home two days a week. The participants were asked to rate the employee on a number of different criteria, and also rate how they thought “the average American” would perceive the employee. In both situations, the participants rated the employee more favourably than they thought “the average American” would rate the employee. However, the employee requesting to work from home was perceived as being “less respectable, less likeable, less committed, less deserving of a promotion, and worthy of lower merit raises” than the employee requesting “flextime”.

The authors then recruited 309 new participants, and gave them the same transcripts – with two important additions. In one addition, the transcript stated that 20% to 25% of male and female senior managers at the organization used flexible work arrangements. In the other addition, the percentages were changed to “more than 50%”. When participants reading the “flextime” transcript were told that more than 50% of senior managers used flexible work arrangements, they were more supportive of the flextime request, and had more positive impressions of the employee. However, participants reading the “flexplace” request had more negative impressions of the employee no matter what percentage of senior managers were using flexible work arrangements.

The research in the other article, Consequences of Flexibility Stigma among Academic Scientists and Engineers, investigated whether there was a stigma against flexible work in a specific occupation – namely, university faculty members in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines. The article’s authors, Erin Cech and Mary Blair-Loy, used a single top-ranked university as their research site, on the basis that the faculty members at this university had a great deal of control over how their work was structured, and over how they chose to balance their work and personal lives. In this situation, the authors suggested, a flexibility stigma would not only be unnecessary but would also be counterproductive. The authors also wanted to investigate whether, if a flexibility stigma existed, it had identifiable consequences.

There were 266 participants in this study, and they were asked whether they perceived a flexibility stigma in their own academic department against parents of young children. They were also asked whether there were negative consequences for workers in their department who used flexible work arrangements, and asked about their own levels of job satisfaction and their intention to continue working at the university. The authors also collected demographic information about each participant, including the academic discipline they worked in.

Less than 14% of the respondents had ever personally used formal workplace arrangements to promote work-life balance, but awareness of a flexibility stigma had no relationship to whether the respondent had personally used a flexible working arrangement. In other words, a flexibility stigma was observed by workers who had used flexible working arrangements – which, of course, are the workers that you would think might be more likely to notice such disapproval – and by workers who hadn’t used such arrangements. Women and parents of children younger than three years old were more likely to notice a flexibility stigma, as were lesbian, gay or bisexual faculty members, and non-permanent faculty members; however, both mothers and fathers of young children were equally likely to notice a flexibility stigma. The participants who perceived a flexibility stigma were less likely to want to stay in academic work, or to stay at the same university for the rest of their careers. A perception of a flexibility stigma also made respondents less satisfied with their jobs, and less satisfied with their own work-life balance.

The authors point out, “These findings thus help support a business case [their emphasis] for addressing workplace climates that foster flexibility stigma: our results suggest that flexibility stigma can foster a difficult workplace climate for workers even if they are not personally at risk of stigmatization” (p. 105). In other words, “propaganda” against arrangements like paternity leave doesn’t just hurt the workers who might want to use those arrangements. It hurts the workplace as a whole by making it appear discriminatory and uncaring. And, I would argue, it also makes the organization appear hypocritical, if the organization promotes workplace equality and supportiveness while turning a blind eye to attitudes or practices that have exactly the opposite effect.

Boomer Esiason apologized for his criticisms of Daniel Murphy’s paternity leave. However, Mike Francesa claims his comments were misunderstood, and that he was only criticizing men who take paternity leave when they are in jobs that are “unique” or when they have the “wherewithal to maybe afford care that some people may not”. That, alongside the results of these two research studies, indicates that we have a long way to go before flexible work arrangements such as paternity leave are truly supported and encouraged. It may not be 1989 any more, but some of our attitudes are still stuck there.

One comment

  1. Thank you for posting about this. Workplaces have policies in place to allow employees flexibility, and then disapprove of anyone making use of them. A workplace that honours its policies is bound to do better in the long run, as employees value commitment from management, and will repay it many times over with their loyalty.

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