For years, academics have argued that flexible workplace policies are good for employers as well as employees because they decrease turnover and increase productivity.

But according to a special issue of the Journal of Social Issues, employees often don't take advantage of such policies, fearing wage penalties, lower performance evaluations and fewer promotions. Women don't want to be "mommy tracked," men worry about being seen as feminine, and those in lower-wage positions are concerned about jeopardizing their jobs. These fears are well-founded, the issue finds. "It's time to start to talk about the psychodynamics surrounding workplace politics that's making workplaces resistant to change," says Joan C. Williams, JD, who guest edited the issue with Jennifer Glass, PhD, Shelley Correll, PhD, and Jennifer Berdahl, PhD.

Here are some of the issue's highlights:

  • In "The All-or-Nothing Workplace: Flexibility Stigma and ‘Opting Out' Among Professional-Managerial Women," researchers found that women in high-status positions often choose to leave their jobs because they feel they cannot live up to workplace expectations that demand constant availability for work. Mothers also experienced repercussions for seeking flexible schedules, such as not being assigned to appropriately high-level projects. Interestingly, the study's participants rarely considered their treatment discrimination.
  • Lower-income mothers face penalties such as warnings from supervisors and suspended pay when they're unable to find or pay for child care, according to "Stereotyping Low-Wage Mothers Who Have Work and Family Conflicts." In a review of research in the area, the author found that employers often view these women — 40 percent of whom have children with special health or educational needs — as irresponsible. "The notion is that if you couldn't have handled all of this, you shouldn't have had children," Williams says.
  • "Fathers and the Flexibility Stigma," a longitudinal study of 12,686 men and women, found that men who leave the workforce for family reasons can expect to earn 26.4 percent less later in their careers than they would have had they never left the workforce. Women face a 23.2 percent financial penalty.
  • One study described in "When Equal isn't Really Equal: The Masculine Dilemma of Seeking Work Flexibility," found that while men and women say they value work flexibility and work-life balance equally, women are significantly more likely to plan to take advantage of flexible work policies.
  • "Penalizing Men Who Request a Family Leave: Is Flexibility Stigma a Femininity Stigma?" found that men who ask for family leave are "feminized" — judged as weaker, more communal, but also as less agentic and dominant. They are seen as poorer employees and are economically penalized as a result.
  • Two studies detailed in "Workplace Mistreatment of Middle Class Workers Based on Sex, Parenthood, and Caregiving," found that caregiving fathers were made to feel not tough enough and were excluded or bullied more on the job than traditional fathers and men without children. Mothers, on the other hand, faced more harassment and mistreatment when they spent less time on caregiving. Women without children were harassed and mistreated most of all.
  • "Ask and ye shall receive? The Dynamics of Employer-Provided Flexible Work Options and the Need for Public Policy" found that managers were most likely to grant flextime to hypothetical high-status men who asked for flexible schedules to advance their careers, such as by taking a professional development class. Among fictitious women, employers rarely granted flexible work requests, no matter their status or reason. In a second study, the researchers found that employees are unaware of such biases.

— Anna Miller