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New Dads Get More Breaks than New Moms in the Office

“There’s something about any man holding a baby that makes him hot,” says Buzzfeed, in its introduction to a list of 22 “hot guys with cute babies.” Yet there's no list of hot girls with cute babies; holding a baby doesn't make a woman a hero. Women are expected to do the majority of childcare, and men are praised when they chip in at all.

One unfortunate real-world application of that persistent double standard, according to a new study, may be that people are more supportive when fathers ask for flexible work arrangements to accommodate childcare than when mothers make the same requests. These men are also more likely to be perceived as admirable and less likely to be seen as uncommitted to their careers. Christin Munsch, associate professor of sociology at Furman University in South Carolina, presented her research Monday at the annual convention of the American Sociological Association in San Francisco.

Munsch recruited 646 people online and gave them transcripts of a (fabricated) conversation between an employee and an HR representative, in which the employee either requested a flexible work arrangement, or, in the control condition, asked for more information about his or her benefits. The online recruits were evenly split by gender and ranged in age from 18 to 65. Munsch played with a few variables in the non-control transcript. One was the gender of the employee: Half the time, the employee was presented as a man called Kevin; half the time, she was a woman called Karen. Another was the type of arrangement the employee requested: sometimes, the employee asked to change his or her schedule, proposing to start and finish a few hours earlier; other times, the employee asked to switch the location of his or her work, proposing to work from home a couple days a week but maintain the same hours. The third variable was the justification Kevin or Karen offered for the request. In some cases, it was related to childcare, with the employee saying he or she would work from home or come home earlier to take care of a daughter; in others, the employee offered up environmental or health-related explanations, like reducing his or her carbon footprint by working from home or leaving early to train for a bicycle race. In all cases, the employee assured the HR rep that the situation would last only six months. 

After reading the transcripts, participants were asked how likely they would be to grant the request, as well as how likely they would be to recommend the employee for a promotion. They were also asked to evaluate the employee on several traits, some personal—how “likeable” and “admirable” he or she seemed—and some professional—dependability, dedication, commitment.

Kevin fared better than Karen on almost every measure. If Kevin asked to work from home some of the time, 69.7 percent of the people polled said they would be “likely” or “very likely” to let him; only 56.7 percent said they would be "likely" or "very likely" to approve Karen’s request. 24.3 percent said they thought Kevin seemed “extremely likeable,” but just 3 percent said the same for Karen. 15.5 percent assumed that Karen was “not very” or “not at all” committed to her job, but only 2.7 percent had that opinion of Kevin. 

“As members of the more privileged social group, men who ‘help’ women with their domestic responsibilities by taking care of children are afforded status,” writes Munsch. “Working mothers, on the other hand, are afforded no such status. Rather, they are often penalized for engaging in paid labor and thought to be shirking their domestic responsibilities.”

The type of work arrangment also made a difference in the participants' views. For both male and female employees, participants were less likely to grant the request to switch their hours than work from home, and employees who asked to work remotely were considered less respectable, less committed, less likeable, and less deserving of a promotion. The effect of gender on the request was also stronger in the work-from-home scenario; women asking to work from home were the least sympathetic group. The explanations for this, Munsch suggests, reflect practical concerns as well as gender biases. Employers may assume that men who work from home may be more likely to continue working and responding to e-mails even after their daughter has come home, since men, according to Munsch, traditionally take on more of the “passive” responsibilities associated with childcare: “Keeping an eye on sleeping children” and “supervising games” rather than feeding and dressing children. Employers “may assume men will be able to simultaneously juggle their work and childcare responsibilities. Given the more time-intensive tasks associated with mothering, employers are less likely to form these beliefs about women.” 

But there are more ingrained prejudices at play, too, Munsch believes. “Compressed schedules are accommodations that take place in the public, masculine sphere of work,” she writes. When asking to work from home, “accommodations take place in the home or the private, feminine sphere. Consequently, working from home may be gendered in a way that compressed schedules are not.”

It's impossible, though, to separate the benefits men derive from bucking stereotypes and acting like involved fathers from the benefits they get just from being men. A possibility Munsch doesn’t consider is that people may be more likely to ascribe positive traits to Kevin, and grant his request, no matter what he’s doing or asking for.