Flexibility stigma is a term scholars use to describe work places that punish those who don’t fit the “ideal worker” profile: solely devoted to one’s job, available 24 hours a day and traditionally male. studies suggest that in academe, such biases are very prevalent in the sciences, and that women with young children are the most frequent targets — hence a “leaky,” gendered pipeline.
But a new study discussed in InsideHigher Ed “argues that both men and women with small children report and resent inflexible department cultures. The study also finds that even non-parents resent flexibility stigma, with negative consequences for the department over all. “Much of the flexibility stigma literature presumes that it is mothers rather than fathers whose parenthood obligations are more likely to trigger stigma,” the study says. “In contrast, we find that flexibility stigma is not just a mother’s problem; mothers and fathers of young children are equally likely to report the presence of flexibility stigma in their departments.”
“It continues: “Related, we find that perceived flexibility stigma is negatively related to desires to remain in one’s position, overall satisfaction, and feelings of work-life balance over and above [researchers’ emphasis] gender, family status, and career-relevant variables.” The study, called “Consequences of Flexibility Stigma Among Academic Scientists and Engineers,” was published in the most recent Work and Occupations journal. (The full study is available to subscribers only, but an abstract is available here.) Lead author Erin Cech, an assistant professor of sociology at Rice University, said she wanted to look at the “mismatch” between outdated, 9-to-5-type expectations for workers and their actual needs, and the consequences of that mismatch. She said that doing so in an academic environment, where workers exhibit devotion to their jobs and scheduling flexibility is relatively high, would be a good place to start.
“We chose to do this study among academics because we thought [flexibility stigma] would be better,” Cech said, given that faculty surveyed had relatively low teaching loads (about two courses annually), and 70 percent said that they had “a lot of control” over how they balance their work and personal lives.”So if we were to find flexibility stigma among workers with a great deal of schedule control, we assumed it would be likely to occur elsewhere,” she said.Some 266 STEM faculty members at an unnamed top research institution with “preeminent” science and engineering programs responded to an online questionnaire about family status, gender and perceived levels of flexibility stigma in their departments. They were also asked to rate, from 1 to 5, whether or not they would consider leaving academe for careers in industry, their job satisfaction, and achieved work-life balance. Researchers used advanced statistical analysis to establish relationships between various responses and variables.Faculty members’ belief that making use of work-life policies, such as taking an occasional sick day to care for an ill child, leads to negative consequences in their departments is strongly related to their beliefs that mothers and fathers are seen in their departments as less committed. Women are more likely than men to report flexibility stigma, and parents with children under age 3 are likelier to report stigma than their non-parent colleagues. And contrary to the researchers’ expectations, mothers and fathers are equally likely to report flexibility stigma.Although 75 percent of the respondents are parents, just 14 percent have taken advantage of work-life policies.Over all, respondents have a low likelihood of wanting to leave academe for industry and are generally satisfied with their experiences at their institution. But they disagree, on average, that they have work-life balance. And those respondents who report flexibility stigma are significantly more likely to want to leave academe for industry; less likely to want to remain at the university long-term; feel less work-life balance; and are less satisfied with their work over all. That’s controlling for demographics, career and family status — meaning even non-parents feel the sting of flexibility stigma.