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  • Could more work-force flexibility widen the gender gap at work? Tweet This
  • Women, especially those with young children, differ from men in their work-family preferences. Tweet This

In a recent profile of Werk, a new company that negotiates flexibility for employees, The New York Times tackled the ever-elusive gender gap. The Times asked, “why women are paid less, why they’re less likely to reach the top levels of companies, and why they’re more likely to stop working after having children”—questions at the root of much debate and controversy. In this piece, the Times chalked it up to “employers’ expectation that people spend long hours at their desks.” The article continues, “It’s especially difficult for women because they have disproportionate responsibility for caregiving.”

I would put it differently and call it, instead, women’s disproportionate preference for caregiving. But both the Times and I would agree on the solution: more flexibility for workers, women especially.

It’s refreshing to see an article discuss the so-called “gender gap” without framing it as sexism. And yet the piece tip-toes around a stubborn reality that so many in society simply refuse to acknowledge when discussing parity and equality for men and women in the workplace: women are not men and consequently have different preferences when it comes to work-family arrangements, especially when they have young children.

In his now infamous 2005 speech addressing “the issue of women's representation in tenured positions in science and engineering at top universities and research institutions,” former Harvard president Larry Summers got himself into big trouble when he referred to sex differences and in particular, the lower female appetite for working the long hours required to get to the top of most professions. Employers, he said, “expect a large number of hours in the office, they expect a flexibility of schedules to respond to contingency, they expect a continuity of effort through the life cycle…” He went on:

And it is a fact about our society that that is a level of commitment that a much higher fraction of married men have been historically prepared to make than of married women. But it seems to me that it is very hard to look at the data and escape the conclusion that that expectation is meeting with the choices that people make and is contributing substantially to the outcomes that we observe.

For two decades, the Pew Research Center has found that, “Working part time has consistently been the top choice for women with at least one child under the age of 18 in the three years that the question was asked.” Less than one-third of women with young children in that Pew survey said that a full-time job is their preference.

The Times piece no doubt feels familiar to many young moms like myself, profiling one mother who works part-time, doing roughly half of those hours between professional childcare, and the other half around naptime. It’s my arrangement almost exactly, and for almost five years, has allowed me to do what I love without breaking the bank on childcare, or breaking my sanity trying to do things like clean and cook dinner after an exhausting day in an office. Plenty would argue that men should pitch in on that front, but what they can’t seem to grasp is that many women like myself actually enjoy managing that aspect of our life. With a husband who works 60-80 hours a week, my flexibility offers additional income but an even more valuable calmness on the home front. I take pride in that contribution, as do countless other women with the same arrangement.

What the Times and others pushing to erase what they deem to be a gap between the sexes in various professions don’t seem to get is that with the rise of more flexible options and outfits like Werk, women are likely to scale back even more, potentially exacerbating the “gap” as opposed to closing it.

But at the same time, an increase in flexible work choices may mean that professionally-oriented women who are also inclined to be more present at home are less likely to drop out of the workforce completely, something studies have found makes it much harder for women to re-enter the workforce later.

Offering more flexible and part-time jobs is a positive development in a free-market economy, one that helps women to more closely achieve what it is they say they want out of the workforce. But “gender gappers” will have to get more comfortable with the reality that more flexibility may only widen the gender gap in the sense the male and female work arrangements are still unlikely to look identical. But all that would mean is that more and more women are getting what they want.