The Harsh Reality Of Flexible Work Schedules

Guys, workplace flexibility isn't just a chick thing and until everyone gets on the same page about that, using so-called flex-time could actually do some damage to your paycheck and career.

Mitt Romney didn't do women -- or men -- any favors Tuesday night when he boasted that offering his female chief of staff an early exit from the office to make dinner was a great example of how you attract and retain women: "I recognized that if you're going to have women in the workforce, that sometimes they need to be more flexible," Romney said.

"Romney was espousing an outdated, traditional way of thinking about flex-time," Lisa M. Leslie, an assistant professor at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, tells The Huffington Post. "Thinking that work-family conflict is something that plagues only women is counterproductive and inaccurate."

Worse, putting workplace flexibility in the pink bucket means it gets stigmatized. When workers ask for freed up schedules to deal with personal issues, their managers often perceive them negatively, according to a soon-to-be published paper from Leslie and her colleague Colleen Flaherty Manchester, also an assistant professor in Carlson's Work and Organizations Department.

That means fewer promotions and less money.

Romney was answering a question about money: How are we going to get to a place where women are paid as much as men? His answer, essentially that women just need their lady time, was deeply unsatisfying.

I mean, it was nice enough. We all want a boss that understands that we have lives and sometimes those lives require our presence at the dinner table or the soccer field or a mother's hospital bed or whatever personal obligation we need to handle.

We. As in, HUMANS. Flex-time isn't something you need to offer women. It's something you offer everyone. Who doesn't like a little freedom at work? The ability to scoot to the dentist during lunchtime, work remotely on a Monday after a weekend out-of-town, maybe, say, leave the office at around 5:00 p.m. to see your kids and then hop back online later after they go to bed.

A lot of people know this. "Just FYI: It's not just women who need flexible work schedules," Yahoo News Editor-in-Chief Hillary Frey Tweeted Tuesday night in response to Mitt's comments.

Obama knows this -- he's spoken on many occasions about how he makes time for family dinner, sometimes skipping out on other events. Take a minute to absorb that: Our president needs flex-time.

Stating the obvious: He is not a woman. Even the "birthers" don't dispute Obama's maleness.

For their paper, Leslie and Manchester surveyed 482 employees and 366 managers at a large company, asking about workers' use of time and managers' attitudes about their productivity and performance. They analyzed performance reviews and salaries. They also conducted lab experiments, presenting managers with fictional employees to gauge opinions.

They found that not all flex-time taking is equal: workers were well-regarded if their manager believed they were using flex-time to be even more productive. For example, you tell your boss you've been logging on early to clear out your in-box before you head to the office and it's allowed you to kickstart your day. Your boss will think you're insanely dedicated, etc.

If you're coming in late because you're taking your kids to school, that could be perceived more problematically. Part of the issue, notes Leslie, is that workplace culture in the United States is strongly "masculine," emphasizing material success over quality of life and normalizing more aggressive workplace culture. As a culture we respect hard work that leads to $$$. "We live to work," says Leslie, not the reverse.

The research, to be published in the December issue of the Academy of Management Journal, runs counter to some other outmoded ways of thinking about the importance of logging face-time to get ahead. And in some regards, should come as welcome news to anyone who simply cannot be a constant presence at work for whatever reason life hands up. (H/T to Melissa Korn at the Wall Street Journal's At Work blog for flagging the research.)

Workplace flex-time is more common now then back in Romney's Bain days, when he couldn't find any women to work at the consulting company. More than three-quarters of companies with 50 or more workers were offering flexible schedules in 2008, according to research from the Families and Work Institute.

Still, the issue on Tuesday night was not how can women be amazing mommies and amazing workers. The question was all about the Benjamins:

Q: In what new ways do you intend to rectify the inequalities in the workplace, specifically regarding females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn? --Katherine Fenton

Obama came closer to answering, touting his support of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first bill he signed into law when he took office. The law gives women greater opportunity to sue over pay inequity in the workplace.

Obama didn't get into the subtleties of the question, however. That involves a hard look at the workplace. We all know that it's going to take a lot more than a law to get women to rise in the ranks and achieve parity with men. Yahoo's new CEO, just back from the world's shortest maternity leave, wouldn't be a hot topic otherwise. And yes, there are only 19 women CEOs in the Fortune 500.

These women would probably tell you, they didn't get to the top because they were granted the time to prepare home-cooked meals.