Career Consequences of Flexible Work Arrangements: The Daddy Track

By Elizabeth Dreike Almer and Louise E. Single

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Since the late 1980s, many employers have been actively promoting various forms of flexible work arrangements (FWA), which can encompass reduced hours and workdays, telecommuting, and nonstandard start and stop times. Initially, these programs were targeted at retaining talented female professionals, specifically working mothers. A number of surveys in popular publications such as Working Mother and Money magazines have captured a growing trend of young men entering professional careers with increased expectations about the amount of workplace flexibility that will be available to them. An increasing number of men have wives who are employed fulltime and expect to share child-care responsibilities with their working spouses.

Can companies take what they have learned about female workers using flexible work arrangements and apply it equally to men? Research has shown that FWAs improve the retention and job satisfaction of female professionals. But if employers want to more fully reap the benefits of FWAs by also making them attractive to men, they should be aware that men’s experience of FWAs, and coworkers’ perceptions of male FWA participants, are different.

With the sponsorship of the AICPA, the authors have conducted research on the organizational and individual factors influencing participation in FWAs, and on how participation in a FWA can negatively affect peers’ and superiors’ perceptions of FWA professionals. This research included responses from over 400 public accounting professionals from one international, two national, and one regional public accounting firm. The results of these two studies highlighted an important fact: FWAs are not equal for men and women.

Sharing the Workload

There seems to be agreement that women still tend to carry the bulk of childcare responsibilities. Working women are more likely to seek accommodations in their schedules. Nonetheless, our research suggests that men are no longer “just going off to work” and leaving behind all the domestic juggling at home. In response to our question about what factors affect the career progression of male and female audit managers balancing work and family under traditional and flexible schedules, one male respondent asked, “Why is it always the woman who is expected to alter her schedule?” Supporting the assertion that men today in dual-income families are expected to share more equally in family responsibilities, a large number of respondents indicated that “burnout” and the inability to juggle work and family was a potential problem for both male and female audit managers. Yet, in an acknowledgement of the difficulties men face, one married male respondent said a male audit manager with children and a working spouse but no FWA “is a time bomb … Either he will leave, work less, or end up getting divorced.” But how viable a choice is a FWA for men wanting to stay in a challenging career while carving out more time for their families?

Workplace Perception and Career Advancement

The research clearly indicates different attitudes toward men and women that choose a FWA. When asked about a hypothetical male and female audit manager on a FWA, comments indicated that FWAs carry a professional stigma four times higher for a male manager than a female manager. Specific comments made about the male FWA audit manager included: “stigma of male being committed to child- rearing/domestic issues,” “individuals who made partner under a regime of 2,700–3,000 hours annually are very unlikely to promote [a male] who works less,” and “[the male manager] should find satisfaction as a career senior manager.” On the other hand, many of the responses to the hypothetical female manager’s description cited “participation in the firm’s work/family balance program” as a positive or career-enhancing move. These responses indicate gender differences in the acceptability of using a FWA that extend even to expectations about what makes “good partner material.” These differences may be partly attributable to the way FWAs have made firms’ culture more accepting of women staying on the partner track while making concessions to family.

A 2000 Department of Labor survey of men and paternity leave showed that 42.6% of men cited “fear of hurting career advancement” as the number one reason for forgoing the opportunity to take available paternity leave. The authors’ research bears out that this fear may be based more on perception than on reality. In the attitudes of peers toward hypothetical male and female managers, males on FWAs were judged least likely to advance to partner and most likely to leave the firm as compared to female FWA managers and all managers on a regular work arrangement. When respondents were asked questions about issues related to the “importance of career to the individual,” however, there were no significant differences by gender. One way to interpret this response is that men and women believe equally in the importance of their careers, but males were more aware that FWAs cause peers to believe they are less committed to their career. Reflecting this concern, one respondent said, “Men in my firm who do any minor flex-time are very quiet about it.”

One crucial reason that men may have greater concerns about the negative consequences of FWAs could be their perceptions of support from coworkers and clients. One respondent commenting on the male manager using a FWA said that peers believe “flex-timers don’t put career first in their life, and are not as serious about succeeding.”

A series of questions was asked about the likelihood of support for FWA participation from various work related sources. Males anticipate significantly less support from clients, peers, and superiors, as shown by Exhibit 1.

Spousal Support

The study found that men that have adopted or are likely to adopt a FWA were also much more prone to believe that their wives would be supportive of a FWA. Fifty-five percent of men in the study that reported being likely to adopt a FWA said that spousal support is very important to them, whereas only 39% of men unlikely to adopt a FWA indicated that spousal support was important to them. In response to the question “What factors are most likely to enhance the male FWA manager’s career?” one male respondent answered simply, “Spousal support.” Another male, responding to the question “What factors are most likely to hinder the male FWA manager’s career progression?” said, “His spouse’s inflexible job if more children are planned.”

This stands in marked contrast to female respondents. There was no difference in spousal support for female respondents, regardless of how likely they were to adopt a FWA. The difference may be the result of cultural biases, which assume that men will always support a wife’s decision to make career concessions for family reasons, whereas the reverse may not be true.

Although males and females do not differ in their attitudes about the importance of networking and having high-profile clients, male respondents viewed the prospect of having work reassigned to peers and slowing career progression in a significantly more negative light than did female respondents (Exhibit 2). They also indicated that FWA participation would likely lead to less desirable work assignments and fewer networking opportunities.

A small number of respondents had been or were currently on a FWA; 31% of this group was male. To understand what makes these male FWA adopters unique, the survey asked what factors influenced that decision. As compared to other men and to female FWA adopters, male FWA adopters believed more strongly that a FWA would actually have the desired outcome of allowing more time with their families. Perhaps more relevant, these men also believed more strongly that their clients, as well as the quality and availability of coworkers, facilitated adoption of a FWA.

Making FWAs More Male-Friendly

Overall, the findings suggest that gender differences need to be carefully addressed in structuring and promoting successful FWAs. Because men have more fear of losing peer and client support and consequently slowing career development, employers need to address these issues directly. First, it seems undeniable that a FWA can slow down the path to partner. It would be unreasonable to expect to cut back on one’s work by 30% and still be promoted in the same time as a peer who has not cut back. Currently, firms encourage individual employees to work out FWAs with their superiors on a case-by-case basis to meet the needs of both the firm and the employee. There is no question that each case has unique features due to differences in employee needs and the needs of the particular clients and office served by that employee. Each particular arrangement may require follow-up to determine how it is affecting the employee in terms of evaluation for promotion. One respondent commented that a “lack of practice development effort and ability to administer a team while out of the office will hinder [a male FWA participant’s] path to partner if no future schedule change is made.”

A formalized follow-up evaluation, with the employee, his superior, and another, objective party (e.g., a human resources representative), could be geared toward ensuring that the employee is focusing on the areas that will lead to the most rapid promotion track. A respondent commented, “Working a flex-time schedule will slow down [a male FWA participant’s] progression because he doesn’t have the time to bring in new business or perfect presentation/selling skills which are a distinction between partner and manager.” This evaluation could ascertain whether the employee is being overlooked for desired high-profile assignments or is forgoing too much practice development activity, and address these issues so that career progress is not sacrificed unnecessarily.

The most intriguing finding of the research is that participation in a FWA is perceived to have long-term consequences for men by slowing career advancement because of reduced time to network and the likelihood of losing out on high-profile assignments. FWA participation does not, however, affect perceptions of males’ commitment to the firm or their desirability on a future engagement. In other words, it does not appear to affect men’s short-term desirability as a coworker.

One might conclude that the perceived gap between FWA males and females in “likelihood of advancement” may be a short-term situation, which will change with an increase in successful role models. Because males participating in FWAs are viewed as reliable and desirable coworkers, their challenge is to stay with a firm long enough to outlast the perception that they are just a short-term player.


Elizabeth Dreike Almer, PhD, CPA, is an associate professor and Meadows Faculty Fellow at Portland State University, Portland, Ore.
Louise E. Single, PhD, CPA, is a lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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