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Elizabeth Hirsh

Research Findings

Is flexible work the answer to the motherhood pay penalty?

May 10, 2018

For many families, integrating work and care remains a challenge. Is flexible work the answer? By affording workers greater freedom to organize their jobs in ways that suit their lives, flexible hours and the ability to work from home can help parents meet children’s needs while still getting their work done.

A puking child is never fun, but it doesn’t have to mean missing out on the day’s work. Daughter needs to be picked up from daycare at 5 sharp? No problem, start the workday earlier to compensate or finish it at home.

Since mothers still do most of the heavy lifting around caregiving, reducing work-life conflict could also help equalize their opportunities in the workplace. But is there a dark side to flexibility?

In our recent study, we investigate how flexible work arrangements – including flexible hours and working at home – impact wage gaps between otherwise similar mothers and childless women in Canada. Does flexibility enhance mothers’ capacity to accommodate work and family demands – or do mothers who access flexible arrangements pay a price in their wages?

The concern is that rearranging work to accommodate the demands of care can violate deeply held assumptions about what it means to be an ideal worker. Rather than help mothers at work, flexible work arrangements may stigmatize them as less committed to their jobs, strengthening negative stereotypes that contribute to motherhood pay penalties. Mothers may also be re-routed to less demanding work or encouraged to accept jobs that are otherwise less desirable (e.g. downshifting to a position with lower pay) to access flexibility.

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