Why Flexible Work Hours May Mean More Work for Women
Gendered social expectations may mean managers underestimate their capacities and assume women are “less efficient” at home.
Return to the office is a much hyped-up idea. It deals with the question of hybrid and flexible working, a model where people can decide their office-home schedule according to their convenience. Flexibility, as the voices of the new work culture go, will be key to unlocking productivity. It is the most articulate and visible symbol of the“new normal” if there ever was one.
But the blanket statement hides nuances and social contexts on many axes — gender being just one of them.
At the very outset, that flexible work life is a plausible reality needs to be acknowledged. “What once seemed like a hot take is becoming a stone-cold reality: For tens of millions of knowledge-economy workers, the office is never coming all the way back,” Derek Thompson wrote in The Atlantic. Even the statistics coming out of India show a similar trend: almost 40% of people surveyed said they expect a hybrid model where they can exercise their freedom, according to a November 2021 survey.
Flexibility and freedom bend differently for different people — these choices aren’t as “free” as one might think. For women, in particular, the premise of “flexible work hours” may eventually mean a disproportionate workload and hours on the whole. For one, the number of women employed overall is lesser than men; but also a study found women remained unemployed for longer than men. “When they did find new jobs, women also experienced a larger reduction in working hours than men, which reduced their annual earnings,” the researchers noted. Another study looked at the overtime hours of men and women in full-time jobs with flexible schedules. For men, earnings increased when they switched to flexible hours; a similar rise was not seen for women due to gendered expectations.
Second, there’s a gendered perception around how people use this “flexibility.” “Employers tend to believe that women use flexibility mainly for family-friendly purposes, which results in women not being rewarded in the same way as men when using flexibility, regardless of the increase in their devotion to work they exhibit,” sociologist Heejung Chung wrote. In other words, women are seen as “less committed employees” irrespective of their competence or effort. “…there are unconscious biases against vulnerable workers—working mothers but also minority or disabled workers—where colleagues and managers will underestimate their capacities and flexible working may trigger biases,” Chung noted.
A general analysis of this work culture shows when workers are offered flexibility, they end up working longer, with work occupying other spheres of life. In one case study, mothers working from home were found to be doing more unpaid work — child care, for instance — than those traditionally in office.
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Moreover, it was framed keeping men — the normative ideal of an employee in the paid work force — in mind. This meant that women’s social roles were not accounted for. The cultural history of flexible work options starts from a very parochial, patriarchal mindset. For people in charge of care work, usually women, the gender norms mean they are supposed to prioritize housework. American sociologist Arlie Hochschild describes the extra work as a “second shift” — capturing the unpaid household chores. In other words, for women, flexibility for women just means changing the when, what, and how much of the work they do.
“Because of gender norms, women do a large chunk of the housework and childcare in heterosexual relationships. So they aren’t able to exploit themselves as much in the labor market, but they are expected to—and do—exploit themselves at home. This means that working from home is used to expand childcare or housework hours,” Chung also explained. Think of this imagery: a woman working from home sitting on a dining table where they can see their children/take care of them; as opposed to a man working in a shut office, as Caitlin Harrington pointed out in Wired.
In order to contradict social stigma around women’s work, people may feel more compelled to work harder and longer under the broad stroke of flexible work schedules. Notably, recent stats show full-time working mothers are spending more time with their children as compared to housewives in the 1960s. This puts women in a double bind — compelled to meet expectations as good mothers on the one hand, and as good employees on the other — and adds more strain on their time and energy.
The disparity in gendered expectations creates two realities — the “fatherhood bonus” and “motherhood penalty,” as experts have come to call it. “Fatherhood is a valued characteristic of employers, signaling perhaps greater work commitment, stability, and deservingness.” Whereas for women with children, flexible work schedules may widen the “penalty” since their work is already misinterpreted. A Third Way study this year found fatherhood on average brings a 6 percent wage boost for each child, while motherhood is associated with a 4 percent pay penalty.
Lastly, there is the question of prizing “overwork” and “workaholics” which defeats the idea of reasonable work culture. Social expectations inevitably mean the workers expand their workday, which may make it harder for women. There’s a paradigm called “passion exploitation,” where passion — in the traditional sense of it — leads the self and others to exploit the person. In the context of gender, women trying to combat stigma may only get the shorter end of the stick.
“In management literature, flexible work has been hailed as this amazing thing that’s really great for work-life balance and gender equality,” Chung said in an interview. But “people who had a huge amount of autonomy over where and when they work were not living in this promised land of better work-life balance and greater leisure time.”
Flexibility is a slippery slope. More often than not, it means expanding the workday without accounting for the social realities of the people. Women, then, work multiple shifts on multiple fronts — with no front properly being accounted for.
Saumya Kalia is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. Her journalism and writing explore issues of social justice, digital sub-cultures, media ecosystem, literature, and memory as they cut across socio-cultural periods. You can reach her at @Saumya_Kalia.