A Culture of Flexibility

In the US, employees with more education and higher salaries generally have greater access to workplace flexibility (for example, time off, adjustable schedules, etc.) than do low-wage workers. But even among those who have access, write Future of Children authors Ellen Galinsky, Kelly Sakai, and Tyler Wigton, the culture surrounding flexibility may deter employees from taking advantage of it. Sixty-one percent of employees believe they would be less likely to get ahead in their jobs if they asked for flexibility.

Workplace flexibility is important for both women and men, but it is especially important for mothers of young children. Princeton University’s Ann-Marie Slaughter argues that mothers in professional or leadership positions will not be able to successfully juggle work and family until workplace norms and values allow for more balance. Consistent with this view, Gallinsky, Sakai, and Wigton report that the higher employees climb the professional ladder, the more likely they are to agree that they have had to choose between advancing in their jobs and devoting time to family life.

This month, research by the New York Times suggests that many working mothers, especially those with young children, may not be aspiring to top leadership positions. Though half of all mothers in the US work full time, a recent poll shows that only a quarter would choose to work full-time if they had the freedom to do whatever they wanted. Thus, for some women workplace flexibility may be more important than career advancement.

Changing the culture of workplace flexibility is an important first step for improving work-family balance. Gallinsky, Sakai, and Wigton outline several strategies for increasing flexibility. Developed by the Families and Work Institute, these strategies include community collaboration and educational events, media outreach, and measuring results. The details of these strategies, along with research and policy recommendations for workplace flexibility, can be found in the Future of Children issue on Work and Family.