If You Think Workplace Flexibility Makes Women Vulnerable, You’re Wrong

The existence of gender bias must never be a disincentive for action.

By Anna Auerbach, Annie Dean and Lindsay Dreyer

A recent study published by an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Furman University, Christin Munsch, says that utilizing flexibility policies increases a woman’s vulnerability in the workplace due to gender bias and has the potential to exacerbate gender inequality. The fact that women who advocate for themselves are judged and often treated differently than men who advocate for themselves is not news. The existence of gender bias appears as early as 6 years old, when young girls begin to identify their male peers as smarter. Women are less likely to be successful in negotiations of any kind, studies indicate that women’s names and even voices are less well received than their male counterparts, and women who are ambitious are considered less trustworthy than similarly situated men.

We don’t need more studies telling us what we already know — we need solutions. The existence of gender bias must never be a disincentive for action.

As the co-founders and co-CEOs of Werk, a new marketplace of flexible, career-building opportunities, we spent over a year researching women in the workplace before launching our product. Our findings indicated that flexibility is the the lowest-cost, highest-impact tool to keep talented women in the workforce and advance them to positions of leadership over time. A recent study concluded that women care more about flexibility than any other metric during a job search. Lack of access to flexibility has significant consequences: working mothers are a class of employees who tend to fail without access to flexibility — the result is massive attrition at every point in the leadership pipeline. Of the 30% of talented women who drop out of workforce, 70% say they would still be working if they had access to flexibility. Despite the fact that 80% of companies offer some type of flexibility program, utilization is low. Companies are only just beginning to understand that flexibility is a strategic tool, not an accommodation or a lifestyle perk.

Bias against women who request flexibility occurs because employers assume they are not serious about their careers — the opposite is true. Women who request flexibility do so because they want to remain in the workforce and are investing in themselves. Employers are slow to understand that women who want flexibility are ambitious because strategic flexibility programs are not widely available. With proper implementation, flexibility can greatly improve an employee’s experience within an organization, resulting in increased loyalty, higher productivity, and better results. We must encourage employers to educate themselves on flexibility and give female employees the opportunity to succeed on a flexible schedule. The only way to eliminate stigma is through education and exposure to counter-stereotypes.

Image courtesy of Unsplash

Though requests for flexibility are likely to be met with some degree of gender bias, we do not believe it is a vulnerability for women in the workplace; gender bias is a vulnerability for businesses. Companies that do not actively work to eliminate gender bias within their organization will be left behind. The market demands that companies will — at a bare minimum — provide non-hostile work environments for professional women. Companies that fail to eliminate gender bias face business and financial consequences. Women who are discriminated against (in the search for flexibility or otherwise) will take their talents to forward-thinking companies who are strategic in their prioritization of women’s advancement. This brain drain is costly: gender diverse companies improve by every metric and are 15% more likely to outperform their peers. Companies with bias face reputational and financial consequences as the result of leaks and litigation. Companies are now being required to demonstrate their commitment to and actual performance of gender diversity, which are measured in tools such as the Bloomberg Gender Diversity Index.

According to Professor Munsch, the research “shows that we should be hesitant in assuming [flexibility] is effective [to advance equality in the workplace]” because of the potential backlash from biased employers. We’ll say it again: the existence of gender bias must never be a disincentive for action. We don’t tell our young girls to stop pursuing math because the world believes they’re no good at it. We don’t tell our college women to not pursue a STEM degree because they don’t fit in. We are a new generation of women, and we aren’t afraid of people who expect us to fail.

Annie Dean and Anna Auerbach are the co-founders and co-CEOs of Werk, and Lindsay Dreyer is the Head of Communications of Werk, a marketplace of flexible work opportunities for ambitious job seekers. Werk is a leading advocate for flexibility in the workplace.