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Not All Teleworkers Created Equal

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By Olga Khazan The Atlantic August 25, 2014

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"How can you become a telecommuter?" asks one of a profusion of online guides on this topic. "You can start by doing your homework, creating an action plan, and being flexible." 

You can add "don't be female" to that list.

For women, there are major drawbacks to requesting to work remotely, according to a new study by Christin Munsch, a sociologist at Furman University.

Munsch had 646 people read a transcript of a fake phone conversation between an employee and a human-resources representative. The employees asked to alter their schedules for a period of six months, requesting either to work from home two days per week or to come in early and leave early three days per week. Perhaps unsurprisingly—given what we know about women and likability—this went over better when the worker was a man.

From the study release:

Among those who read the scenario in which a man requested to work from home for childcare related reasons, 69.7 percent said they would be "likely" or "very likely" to approve the request, compared to 56.7 percent of those who read the scenario in which a woman made the request. Almost a quarter—24.3 percent—found the man to be "extremely likable," compared to only 3 percent who found the woman to be "extremely likable." And, only 2.7 percent found the man "not at all" or "not very" committed, yet 15.5 percent found the woman "not at all" or "not very" committed.

In other words, when dad asks for time to take little Devon to fencing class, it's adorable. When mom does it, she's being lazy.

However, I just want to draw our ire to one more finding from the study. The reasons for the "flextime" and "flexplace" requests varied. In some cases, the workers said they wanted the afternoons to “take care of my daughter after school.” Others, though, said they wanted to leave early to “train for the California Classic Cycling Challenge," or to work from home so they could "lessen my impact on the environment.”

It turns out that both men and women whose reason for the request was childcare-related, as opposed to either exercise- or environment-related, were more supported in their requests, more respected, and seen as marginally more committed to their work and worthier of promotions.

Among those who read a scenario in which an employee asked to work from home two days a week for childcare related reasons, 63.5 percent of the respondents said they would be "likely" or "very likely" to grant the request. However, only 40.7 percent of those who read a scenario in which an employee asked to work from home two days a week to reduce his or her commute time and carbon footprint said they would be "likely" or "very likely" to grant the request.

The effect was especially pronounced for men. The women were judged similarly regardless of the reason they gave for working from home. Meanwhile, the subjects were significantly more likely to approve of the men who were motivated by family obligations rather than personal issues.

"In other words, it appears that the significant interaction between gender and 
childcare points to a substantial fatherhood bonus rather than a motherhood penalty," Munsch writes in the paper.

One possible explanation, Munsch points out, is that mothers tend to perform "labor-intensive, time-sensitive tasks at home," like cleaning or helping with homework, while fathers do "passive tasks." The study subjects might have assumed that the fathers would just plop the kids in front of SpongeBob and jump on a conference call. In other words, they'd be better able to fulfill their work commitments while home with the kids. 

* * *

It's tough to know what to make of all this. As a natalist who supports both gender equality and the continuation of the human race, I'm glad the study subjects understood the necessity of childcare-friendly work arrangements. It's also heartening that they thought it was important for fathers to pitch in at home. 

But as a childless homebody who hates riding the metro, I find it alarming that people asking to work from home for non-childcare, personal reasons were at a disadvantage. The people reading the transcripts weren't even the workers' actual bosses! Imagine what someone with real money on the line would do in their shoes.

With modern technology, there is almost no white-collar work task that can't be done from home. People hate being in open-plan offices, which some research shows kill productivity anyway. Calls for a shorter workweek for everyone are growing increasingly vociferous. There should be ways for both parents and non-parents to negotiate for such things without fearing a backlash.

It's a little ridiculous that in 2014, having a kid makes one seem worthier of working flexible hours or from home. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a Cycling Challenge to train for.

(Image via Nadezhda1906/Shutterstock.com)

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