Flexibility is a good thing, right?
Especially in a job—a little flex time can mean the difference between work-life balance and work-work imbalance … theoretically.
Dwyer Gunn of Slate argues that flexible work hours are in fact working against one of the main groups they were instituted to serve: working mothers. A mother herself, Gunn points out that the path to the dreaded “mommy track,” which Sheryl Sandberg denounces thoroughly in her book Lean In, is lined with seemingly good things—namely, part-time and flexible work hours.
Now, there is a distinction to be made: According to Gunn’s argument, flex time harms a mother’s career, not her overall happiness. Countries with infrastructures that encourage more flexible work situations across the board also report higher happiness levels … but the United States isn’t one of them.
Gunn points to research findings that part-time workers are paid less than full-time, and that some of the reason for this is “occupational segregation,” or the limited careers that facilitate part-time work. “You don’t see many three-day-a-week investment bankers or Fortune 500 CEOs,” she writes. Essentially, the offer of a flexible job encourages mothers to take it, but there’s no equivalent incentive for fathers—and the mothers who accept the offer of flex time are more likely to ease onto the mommy track.
A systemic fix for this problem (such as enforced maternity leave for both parents, or high-quality, universal childcare) would be much more effective than hollow encouragement for working moms to pass up the opportunity for more flexible employment. Gunn cites the case of Iceland, one of the most gender-equal countries in the world, which offers three months of maternity leave for mothers, three for fathers and three to be shared. Once fathers had the non-transferable time off, record numbers of them used it.
But of course, the U.S. has one of the least-flexible maternity leave policies and most all-encompassing work cultures in the world, so the mommy track doesn’t seem to be ending any time soon. Now it’s up to each of us: Will we get on or off?