The “Flex Schedule” versus the “Four Day” Fallacy

Maria Colacurcio, September 17, 2019

Are you as fed up as I am with all the talk about flexible schedules? It’s been shown over and over that flexible schedules are one of the most critical benefits an employer can offer to attract and retain women. And yet, paradoxically, many women who take advantage of a flexible schedule suffer hits to their career (and salary). For many women deemed productive and trustworthy enough for such a benefit, their reward is the same volume of work (if not more) and less pay. 

There’s a right way and a wrong way to approach flexible schedules.  Let’s talk about both approaches.

During the course of my career, I negotiated a variety of flex schedule arrangements. After the birth of my (first) daughter, I took a 30% pay cut so I could have a flexible schedule. It worked out poorly.  Like most women who make this deal, each week I spent a few precious afternoon hours with my daughter — and then went back to work late into the night, waking up at the crack of dawn to finish anything left unfinished. My reward for this flexibility, where the sum total was 100% full time? 70% pay. 

Women who work a four day work week often fall into the same trap.  They eagerly take a four day week believing it will give them needed flexibility at home, where they carry a disproportionate share of the work. What happens in reality is they take on added responsibility and tasks outside their core responsibility to shore up the perception that they are less devoted to work, often working additional time outside core hours and checking email on their one day off.  

So how do we avoid these traps for the unwary, and embrace the flexibility endless studies show is productive?  I believe the answer is to model the behavior we want to see, and make flexible work routines acceptable for everyone — not just women. 

To be frank, if we want men to embrace flexible schedules for women — and I mean genuinely embrace it, and not merely pay lip service to it because it’s PC — we need men to embrace it for themselves. 

It’s one thing to hear your manager or leader embrace flexibility (or diversity, inclusion, resilience, respect, or anything else), and it’s another to see them model that behavior. 

This means that if those in positions of power want their employees to know the corporate commitment is genuine, those leaders themselves must embrace it themselves. This can come in a variety of forms.  Perhaps the male executive can miss a meeting because his young child as a teacher conference or dentist appointment, or on occasion work from home. The same is true for our most senior female leaders, who often feel pressure to outwork their male peers to prove they’re not slackers.

Research tells us that females fall even further behind in wages the moment they have children, while the opposite is true for men. And younger women are feeling the strain of deciding between flexibility, which often means a career setback or motherhood and its taking a toll.  

So how can we combat the motherhood penalty and the wage inequality that follows?

First things first, companies must commit (at the executive level) to ongoing, iterative pay analyze to identify and resolve any gaps due to gender using a pay equity analysis tool. Next, companies can start to create an environment that supports women and men by modeling the behaviors that retain women employees. Parental leave for all caregivers after the birth or adoption of a child is crucial and important, but creating a culture that supports a flexible work environment is more than that. It means sometimes the CEO steps out to take a child to the doctor, or stays home when someone is sick. When that behavior starts at the top, both men and women will feel empowered to follow suit. 

It’s daunting in the current environment for women to opt in (or lean in) to executive level positions if the delicate balance between life and work is on the line. A lot of the time, women will opt out. But by stepping up to lead, we can create the culture and work environments where all people thrive.

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