Flexible work arrangements, which enable people to voluntarily change when and where they work, are stigmatized in American workplaces due to a belief that flexible work patterns reflect an insufficient commitment to work. Yet, I find that the use of these arrangements is associated with heightened, not diminished, levels of work devotion among working mothers.
This finding contradicts the commonly held view that to effectively manage job and family responsibilities, one must make sacrifices or trade-offs between ambitions at work and at home. As “trade-offs,” strategies are portrayed within the context of a zero-sum relationship between work and family—a view which upholds the “sperate spheres ideology” that has long legitimized traditional breadwinning men and homemaking women arrangements.
In a recently published article, I suggest that work-family strategies exist as a “buffet” of options, characterized not just by the institution (work or family) that is adjusted when adopted but also by their associated moral weight. Said differently, strategies are embedded within symbolic landscapes that render certain options more accessible, appropriate or desirable than others.
Using data from a sample of middle- and upper-class working mothers, I demonstrate that work-family strategy selections are, in part, cultural decisions. Working mothers use strategies that are aligned with their cultural beliefs. While work-devoted women often adjust family life and family-devoted women often adjust work life in an effort to manage work-family responsibilities, some strategies, such as flexible work, are creatively interpreted to align with both belief systems.
Beliefs about the centrality of motherhood, as well as beliefs about the merit of unmediated dedication to work, are associated with an increased likelihood of adopting flexible work arrangements.
To explain this association, I assert that strategies are socially coded with different levels of stigma, akin to warning flags at the beach or labels on food and drug products. Through a process I dub “stigma coding,” individuals take these codes into consideration as they make strategy decisions.
Unlike part-time work, which cuts overall work time, working flexible hours or working remotely does not explicitly contradict the core cultural beliefs of work-devoted women. As a result, this strategy is relatively less stigmatized. There is room – made available through lower levels of associated stigma – for women to adjust the meanings of flexible work to align with their cultural beliefs.
For instance, it may be that work-devoted women interpret flexible work arrangements not as a sacrifice but as a resource for getting more work done, allowing them to work at the times and locations that maximize their productivity.
Interestingly, among less affluent women, even high-stigma strategies such as part-time work are associated with increased work devotion.
Given other research that demonstrates how women, particularly low-income women and women of color, modify or expand dominant cultural ideals about work and family when those ideals conflict with their lived realities, it may be that less affluent women face conditions that require greater cultural adjustments. It may also be that part-time work is less stigmatized in lower-paying jobs, where employers prefer employees work part time to reduce labor costs.
Regardless, it is clear that elements of work and family life are not simply exchanged in one-to-one transactions; rather work-family management, especially for women, entails a complex negotiation of time, money and meaning.
Findings from this study are particularly important in the U.S. context, where greedy institutions and a lack of publicly sponsored social supports make women feel as though they must choose to pursue either work or family. Hiring and promotion practices, infused with gendered assumptions about the incompatibility of market activity and care, penalize women for anticipated – though not empirically materialized – productivity losses associated with motherhood. Moreover, a persistent gap in the number of hours that women and men spend on unpaid domestic work serves as a lasting legacy of previous generations’ gendered divisions of family labor.
Nevertheless, a large number of contemporary American women do combine work and family. One in three working women has a child under the age of 18, and 70 per cent of mothers participate in the paid labor force.
My findings provide needed insight into how women navigate this difficult landscape. I demonstrate that cultural beliefs matter, alongside material resources and constraints, in women’s work-family decision making. In addition, I identify women’s agency in aligning seemingly discordant strategies with strongly held cultural beliefs, suggesting the potential to disrupt long-standing gendered assumptions about the incompatibility of work and family life.
The disruption of these assumptions is valuable for all workers – both women and men – seeking to integrate work and family, especially as more families require two incomes to make ends meet.
These findings also have implications for organizational leaders. Motivations for using flexible work arrangements are ambiguous and diverse, and thus the stigmatization of these options can have unintended consequences. Avoidance of flexible work due to fears of stigma can, for example, undermine work productivity in some cases.
While women’s observed ability to reconfigure meanings of work-family strategies opens up a potential pathway for social change, it does not supplant the need for state supports. American women, unlike their counterparts across all other western industrialized countries, do not have access to federal paid parental leave, and they have limited access to good quality, publicly funded caregiving.
A profound shift in work-family patterns, and the gendered structures undergirding them, will require more than micro-level negotiations. Meaningful change must entail investments from individuals, employers and policymakers.
Sarah Mosseri. “Finding middle ground: the relationship between cultural schemas and working mothers’ work-family strategies” in Community, Work & Family 2019.
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