Not Just a Workers’ Problem: The Consequences of Flexibility Stigma among Science and Engineering Faculty

by Erin A. Cech and Mary Blair-Loy

The widespread fascination with the TV series Mad Men is partly due to the stark contrast it draws between the postwar professional workforce portrayed in the series and the realities of that same workforce today. Although still largely male-dominated, professional occupations are no longer predominantly populated by men who serve as family breadwinners and have stay-at-home spouses. Women are in the workforce standing shoulder to shoulder with men as household earners and nearly half of couples with young children now juggle childcare responsibilities along with two careers. Despite a professional workforce demographic that is decidedly post-Mad Men, workplace arrangements and expectations of “ideal workers” in professions today could be ripped right out of a Mad Men script.

Professionals today face a mismatch between their needs as workers and the arrangements and expectations of their workplaces. This worker-workplace mismatch is the topic of recent efforts to Redesign and Redefine Work, spearheaded by Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research. These efforts have been galvanized by a recent special issue of the journal Work and Occupations (February 2014), edited by Shelley Correll, Erin Kelly and Joan Williams.

Cultural assumptions from the Mad Men era still lie beneath the surface of today’s workplaces. These include the cultural mandate of work devotion, which assumes that “ideal workers” put work first and do not need any work-family accommodations to care for families. This norm creates a “flexibility stigma,” the negative sanctions directed toward workers who violate the “ideal worker” norm by seeking or being presumed to need accommodations to take care of personal responsibilities. Professionals with children or who use work-family policies are often seen as less dedicated than their colleagues, and may be sanctioned with lower wages, slower promotion, and less-than-stellar performance evaluations. Both mothers and fathers are susceptible to flexibility stigma.

Flexibility stigma contributes to the worker-workplace mismatch because it leads workers to be nervous about using work-life policies to which they are entitled, for fear this stigmatization will lead to career penalties.

We know from previous research that flexibility stigma is a problem for workers, but we wondered in our article, “Consequences of Flexibility Stigma Among Academic Scientists and Engineers,” whether flexibility stigma would also have a negative effect on workplaces—contributing to a toxic work climate that might have negative consequences even for people (e.g. childless workers) who are not themselves the target of this stigma.

To examine this question, we studied a theoretically revealing population that has a great deal of schedule control and who also closely emulates the “ideal worker” norm: science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) faculty at a highly-ranked research-intensive university. If there are consequences of flexibility stigma among this population, then we might expect such consequences to be present, if not exaggerated, in workplaces where workers have less control over their schedules.

To capture flexibility stigma, our survey asked whether STEM faculty who are fathers and mothers of school-aged children are seen as less committed to their career than their non-parent colleagues, and whether the use of formal or informal work-life policies has negative consequences for careers. This is a novel way of capturing flexibility stigma, as it asks respondents directly about the cultural beliefs within their workplaces, rather than using differential outcomes for users versus non-users of work-life policies as proxies for this stigma.

As expected, we found that parents are more likely than nonparents and childless women more likely than childless men to report flexibility stigma in their departments. We did not find a difference between mothers and fathers, however, suggesting that flexibility stigma among this sample of STEM academics is something that concerns fathers as well as mothers.

More interestingly, we find several important consequences of being employed in a department with flexibility stigma, regardless of whether they personally have childcare responsibilities: faculty who report a flexibility stigma in their departments are less likely to intend to remain at their institution, less satisfied with their job overall, and feel like they have less work-life balance than colleagues who do not report such stigma in their departments. In other words, flexibility stigma is bad for all workers in the workplace, not just those personally at risk for being targets of the stigma.

These findings suggest the need for a shift in how we think about flexibility stigma. It is not just something that specific workers—particularly parents—face. It is a workplace problem. After all, job dissatisfaction and employee turnover is not only detrimental for workers, but is harmful to the bottom line as well. Put in the context of our sample, startup packages for STEM faculty range, on average, from $90,000 to $400,000, depending on the discipline. Replacing workers who leave because of climate issues in their department is expensive. In other words, our findings support a business case for addressing flexibility stigma.

We argue that redesigning work to address the worker-workplace mismatch is not just a matter of instituting new work-life policies. Redesigning work will also require addressing the cultural factors like flexibility stigma that keep workers from using those newly-instituted policies out of fear of repercussions. We hope that this line of research is expanded to non-Academic samples and those who less closely approximate the ideal worker norm.

Professional workers are not Mad Men anymore. Through scholarship, policy innovations, corporate leadership, and public action, we can work to make the worker-workplace mismatch as much a relic of the past as the three-martini lunch.

Erin Cech is an assistant professor of sociology at Rice University and a past postdoctoral fellow at Stanford’s Clayman Institute. Mary Blair-Loy is an associate professor of sociology at the University of California San Diego and Founding Director of the Center for Research on Gender in the Professions.

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