How Flexible Work Benefits Actually Hurt Women

In today’s day and age, nearly every company capable of doing so boasts flexible working arrangements on their website. These arrangements include allowing an employee to work from home, work part time and or set their own hours. There is a clear difference between having flexible working conditions on paper or on a website, and having employees actually utilize them without fearing consequences. A new law in Vermont hopes to mitigate this fear, but will it be enough to change the burdens facing working parents?

It is no secret that women who opt for flexible work policies after the birth of a child are penalized. This penalty, often called the “mommy penalty” can manifest itself in various ways including reduced pay, lack of promotions, or reduced responsibilities. Mothers who face such penalties find it difficult to take advantage of flexible working conditions, and are often pushed out of the workplace.

Studies now show that fathers too face a penalty in regards to utilizing flexible work policies, oftentimes even more severe than the penalty that females face, likely a result of cultural norms which assert that women are child-rearers and men are not. Fathers who want to spend time with their families may be hesitant to do so because of the repercussions, forcing more responsibilities on mothers.

Peter Shumlin, the governor of Vermont, recently signed a state law which attempted to address this issue by protecting employees who seek flexible working arrangements. While this is a step in the direction, tracking how effective the law is in practice will be crucial over the upcoming months.

Until workers of both genders are comfortable taking advantage of flexible working conditions, it will be especially difficult for mothers to balance the demands of the household and the demands of the workforce. Between being afraid of the mommy penalty and having partners who are also not utilizing flexible working options because of a fear of the consequences, women are unintentionally emphasizing the cultural stereotype that women should be primary caregivers while men are primary breadwinners.

Whether or not Vermont's new law will be successful may depend on addressing bigger cultural issues first.