How Parenthood Benefits Men In The Workplace -- But Not Necessarily Women

When Max Schireson stepped down to from his post as CEO of MongoDB to spend more time with his family this month, many asked: Why are fathers left out of the work-life balance debate? Perhaps, as new research suggests, dads don't face the same challenges as moms when it comes to asking employers to work around their schedules.

In a new study published by the American Sociological Association, author Christin Munsch, an assistant professor of sociology at Furman University, found a "flexibility bias" against mothers who asked for flextime (the ability to alter work schedules) or flexplace (the ability to work remotely). Dads, on the other hand, seemed to benefit from their quest for work-life balance, and were seen more favorably in light of these requests.

The controlled online experiment used 646 participants -- 316 men and 330 women -- who were shown a transcript which they believed was an actual conversation between a human resources representative and an employee, Kevin or Karen, depending on the group. They were then asked to answer questions about the employees' likability, competence and likelihood to achieve flex-work goals.

After analyzing the results, Munsch found a "fatherhood bonus." Men with children who requested flextime or flexplace were seen more positively than men without children with the same requests. What's more, fathers were viewed as more respectable, likeable, committed and worthy of a promotion than mothers with the same flex-work needs. And there was absolutely no difference in the perceptions of mothers and women without children.

The idea behind these findings, Munsch told The Huffington Post, is that fathers benefit from societal norms, earning a "progressive merit badge" simply by parenting.

"I think it has to do with our cultural definitions of what it means to be a good mom and what it means to be a good dad," Munsch said. "A good dad is somebody who is involved in his child's life. A good mom is someone who gives up everything and always puts her children first. If she's at home with them, she's reading to them, she's cooking them meals, she's bathing them -- she's doing everything."

This line of thinking may explain why there didn't seem to be a difference between mothers and women without children, especially in terms of flexplace. If fathers are more likely to engage in "passive care" with children, then surely they'll be more likely to actually be working when they're not in the office. Women, on the other hand, are seen as less likely to be able to juggle work and hands-on domestic tasks whilst being at home, Munsch posits. Taken one step further, Munsch said that it's likely employers will assume that any woman -- mother or not -- will be likely to engage in domestic activities, rather than ardently working while at home.

After evaluating her findings, Munsch said that the onus falls on employers to remedy the situation by adopting more transparent and objective policies for flex-work.

For example, instead of requesting flextime or flexplace in a one-on-one basis, fraught with subjective assumptions -- "Hm, this is what I really think this person will be doing at home" -- she suggested that employers streamline the process and enact objective criteria to ensure that both men and women receive the same treatment, whether it's permission to work from home or consideration for a promotion or raise.

"Quite often people are like, 'What can individual mothers do?'" Munsch said. "But if organizations were to rethink the way they structured the work place and didn't demand that people were in the office 50 or 60 hours a week and were more accommodating of people's work-life balance, this wouldn't be a problem."

Work-life balance may be just as much a problem for dads as it is for moms, but the extra helping of judgement on moms is tipping the scales even further away from equilibrium. Luckily, Munsch foresees strides being made by employers to make sure that mothers and fathers have the same opportunities for flex-work.

"I definitely think there's hope with flexible work arrangements," she said. "I would hate it if it came across as anti-flex-work."

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