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Flexible working bias in academia

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Flexible working bias in academia

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A few weeks ago I looked at flexible working and how, despite the numerous benefits of doing so, be that improved productivity, employee engagement, lower office costs and so on, it still wasn’t taking off.  Of course, there have been many stories and studies exploring how many employers still seem to discriminate against those who work flexibly, whether that’s in denying them promotions, salary rises or whatever.

As most of these studies emanate from academia, you’d perhaps imagine that they would have their own house very much in order.  Sadly, you’d be wrong, as a new study illustrates.

The study explored the work habits of 266 faculty members from STEM related subjects at a high ranking university.  The participants completed an online survey to reveal both their family situation and whether they subsequently made use of flexible work arrangements.  They were also asked how their careers were going.

“As researchers, we’re interested in understanding the gap between the traditional 9-to-5 work setting and what workers actually need,” said Erin Cech, an assistant professor of sociology at Rice and the study’s lead author. “The majority of parents are in the workforce today, yet the expectations and arrangements of work have stayed more or less the same as they were post-World War II. We’re trying to understand this mismatch and its consequences.”

The study revealed that when academics reported a perceived stigma attached to flexible working in their departments, they were less inclined to stay in their jobs, more interested in leaving academia and generally less satisfied with their jobs as a whole.  This was true regardless of whether the academic was themselves a parent or not.

“Flexibility stigma is not just a workers’ problem,” said study co-author Mary Blair-Loy, an associate professor of sociology at UC San Diego and founding director of the Center for Research on Gender in the Professions. “Workplaces where this bias exists are more likely to have a toxic culture that hurts the entire department, not only in terms of work-life balance but also retention and job satisfaction, which may affect department productivity.”

The root of this stigma is the stubbornly persistent notion that career success can be directly measured by how much time you commit to it, which in turn is used as a proxy for your loyalty to the organization you work for.

“Work devotion is useful for employers because it helps motivate senior management, but is destructive to people trying to care for family members,” Blair-Loy said. “It underlies this stigma that is damaging to all members of the department, not just the ones that are parents.”

Of course, awareness of this stigma, even amongst those that aren’t parents themselves, should hopefully begin to see a cultural shift emerge as the old guard gradually filter out of the workplace.

“These individuals can be real allies in making a more inclusive, welcoming environment for everyone,” Blair-Loy said. “It provides the opportunity to broaden awareness of problematic work environments and educate others about this bias.”

Until then, it does seem as though flexible working will remain a prickly topic in many a workplace.  This topic, and others like it, will be discussed at the upcoming SmartWorking Summit.

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