It seems like more and more people are telecommuting and showing up to work at odd hours these days. It's a great perk, but there's a more serious side to the trend: the advancement of women in many workplaces may depend on it.
A new survey shows that women workers are far more ambitious in workplaces that offer flexible work options like non-standard hours and telecommuting than women in workplaces without those options. Men, meanwhile, are far less affected by the availability of those arrangements.
The survey from Catalyst, a nonprofit that aims to expand workplace opportunities for women, finds that 83 percent of women who had access to flexible arrangements said they aspired to a senior executive- or CEO-level position, while just 54 percent of women without such programs could say the same. Among men, the difference was much smaller: 94 percent of men with flexible arrangements said they are aiming for the C-suite, compared to 85 percent of men who didn't have that option.
The survey also finds that 32 percent of women with options like telecommuting had pulled back on their workplace aspirations, compared to 57 percent of women without those options. Men, however, showed no meaningful difference between groups.
The April 2013 survey focused on 726 MBA graduates around the world working full-time – a non-representative crowd, but also a high-achieving group of people who may reasonably share similar workplaces and career goals. Catalyst calls these people "high potentials," and the organization believes that flexible work arrangements are key to helping workers reach their potential.
"The reality is that flexible work options give employees the opportunity to organize their personal and professional lives in the most convenient way for them," says Anna Beninger, senior associate in research at Catalyst. "When it's possible to work from anywhere, any time of day, this flex gives people the opportunity to lessen their stress levels."
Exactly what to do with this information is the next logical question. For its part, Catalyst advocates for employers expanding their offerings. More workers volunteering for high-level positions broadens the talent pool, they argue.
Workplaces might be willing to change their flexible work policies...but then again, maybe not. Indeed, many jobs do not lend themselves easily to more creative work arrangements. While the Society for Human Resource Management reports that increasing numbers of employees are taking advantage of flexible policies, there are several high-profile cases – large corporations like Yahoo and Bank of America, for example – of companies that have famously pulled back on those programs.
Flexible work options are not exactly the norm yet for American workers. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, around half of workplaces reported having access to FWAs as of 2011, but among those, only one-third said the majority of workers could use those policies.
If workplaces can't or won't change, what could? Catalyst's study doesn't dig into the question of why there is this gender gap in career aspirations. It does show that men are just as likely as women to take advantage of most flexible work policies, so why wouldn't their aspirations be affected as much as those of their female peers? Beninger has one guess:
"That's certainly cultural," she says. A large part of why these differences have arisen, she surmises, could be the "responsibilities that people have placed on women and men based on household duties and childcare."
Though plenty of people without children may use flexible work options to the same degree in Catalyst's survey, it's possible that women feel pressured to spend more time at home. According to the latest American Time Use Survey, American women spend three times as much time on housework as men, and women do more than twice as much food preparation and cleaning. A more equal split might likewise change workplace attitudes, but that is likely a long time in coming.
Whatever the effects of flexible work arrangements on ambition, it's also important to note that taking advantage of those programs can hurt workers' changes of promotion. Research published last year in the MIT Sloan Management Review suggested that face time at the office made for greater chances of promotion. Meaning that while telecommuting and flexible hours might give a person higher aspirations, they might also make it harder to climb the ladder.