Not surprisingly, we advocate flexibility and family friendly policies with our corporate clients. However, a series of new research shows promoting such ‘benefits’ as being aimed primarily as women, can actually undermine their advancement as it gives employers an excuse to discriminate against them as potentially problematic employees. They see women as ‘not worth the risk’ of leaving or potentially needing costly support. As detailed in the New York Times by Claire Cain Miller,
For example, in the US, after the introduction of the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993, still one of the least generous programmes in the developed world, women were 5% more likely to remain employed but 8% less likely to be promoted than they had been before the introduction of the law. Similarly, Chile introduced a child-care law which required employers with more than 20 women to provide and pay for local childcare to mothers with kids under the age of 2 years. While the smallest employers often didn’t comply, many of the rest compensated for the perceived loss by offering women starting salaries that were 9% to 20% less than they had before the law.
Spain introduced a new law in 1999 giving workers with children younger than 7 the right to ask for reduced hours. It was predominantly women who requested reduced hours and in the subsequent decade companies were 6% less likely to hire women of child-bearing age compared to men, 37% less likely to promote them and 45% more likely to dismiss them. The probability of unemployment amongst women of child-bearing age also increased by 20% during that time. As explained in the New York Times: ‘ These findings are consistent with previous research by Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn, economists at Cornell. In a study of 22 countries, they found that generous family-friendly policies, like long maternity leaves and part-time work protections in Europe, made it possible for more women to work — but that they were more likely to be in dead-end jobs and less likely to be managers.’ The answer is not in reducing the benefits afforded women but in making sure such ‘benefits’ flexibility is gender neutral.