by Callie Enlow
It’s Equal Pay Day, reminding us that the gender wage gap persists, particularly in the United States, where women earn about 80 cents to a man’s dollar. The Institute of Women’s Policy Research estimates that if progress on the gap proceeds at its current rate, American women will not earn pay equality until 2059.
This payment gap affects women’s lives far beyond their paychecks, directly impeding women’s ability to afford childcare, enjoy quality time with family, and retire comfortably, among other things. Perhaps one reason why progress has been so slow is that the gap is often attributed to many different factors aside from pernicious sexism alone, from women self-selecting into low-paying “pink-collar” jobs, choosing to leave the workforce to raise children, or not advocating strongly enough for raises or adequate starting salaries. My least favorite excuse is that women willingly trade pay for schedule “flexibility,” which ostensibly helps workers balance family and domestic duties, particularly if that work can also be completed remotely.
Flexibility is also often positioned as a benefit that can attract and retain employees in lieu of higher salaries. A 2016 article produced by University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business quotes Peter Cappelli, director of Wharton’s Center on Human Resources, explaining “if you treat [employees] better, you don’t have to pay them as much to get them to work for you … Flextime, especially practices where employee groups work out schedules to cover the business needs, are really effective.”
Moreover, research shows that when women ask for more flexibility in their jobs they’re penalized for it much more harshly than men, which can affect promotions and pay raises. So, unless there’s an explicit culture of remote work and flexible scheduling at a company, women employees attracted to the possibility of flexibility and willing to ask for it can be penalized twice, once in accepting a lower starting salary in return for the promise of that perk and then over the span of their career if they actually use it.
Yet many women make that trade, knowingly or not. According to a Pew survey, 70 percent of working mothers of children under 18 say flexibility is extremely important to them. In other words, the job quality that many working women value most is also something that can depress their wages.
“I don’t think it’s just popular, I think it’s something that’s necessary,” said Marcy Syms about flexibility. Syms is the former CEO of retail company SYMS Corp. and a board member of the ERA Coalition, a group dedicated to passing and ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment, which would make gender-based pay discrimination illegal, among other things. The Wharton article also states “Flexibility has become a logistical necessity; in nearly half of families with two parents today, both parents work fulltime.”
The wage gap is most prevalent in both the lowest and highest income tiers, and in both instances, flexibility may be a contributing factor. Even if they want to work more, women may get stuck in part-time or hourly jobs that are just shy of full-time because they perceive those hours to be more flexible. Not only are those jobs typically low-paying and hard to advance in, generally they’re not required to provide insurance or paid sick leave. On the other end of the spectrum, Harvard economist Claudia Goldin has documented that the highest earning professions still tend to reward performance based on long hours and physical presence, putting working moms at a steep disadvantage compared to fathers and childless employees. Syms noted that, “If we look at the number of women who are in top management and compare that to number of men, women are 40 percent more likely not to have any children at all.”
Here’s the thing, everyone wants flexibility, it’s the number one thing people look for when considering a new job. According to a recent Gallup survey, 43 percent of employees now work remotely at least some of the time, a rise of 4 percentage points since 2012. When companies encourage a flexible work environment for all employees, women tend to benefit. “When workers have more temporal flexibility—that is, more choice as to the schedules and number of hours they work—the gender gap narrows,” states a report on the wage gap by the Economic Policy Institute, citing the work of Goldin.
Some studies indicate flexible work cultures help companies’ balance sheets as well. A 2013 study in the U.K. among large businesses like Tesco, Citigroup, Ford, and BP, showed that businesses organized for “agility” actually save on workplace costs and can sometimes realize substantially better sales. The Gallup report states that “As more people work away from the office, organizations recognize their opportunity to cut costs by minimizing real estate.” Flexibility, it should be noted, also doesn’t seem to cost companies much of anything aside from the potential headaches of managing remote teams, possibly some inexpensive cloud storage or software, and perhaps an in-person meeting a few times a year. It’s a much less costly benefit than say, stellar health insurance or generous retirement contributions.
More than a nifty perk, flexibility is fast becoming an expectation, and prospective employees—men and women, parents and childless—would do well to insist on both that agility and just compensation. Not one or the other. The Wharton article ultimately questions whether flexibility and compensation must be at odds. “We often pose these questions and think of them in trade-off terms, and that can be limiting to us,” Nancy Rothbard, Wharton management professor, is quoted as saying.
I posed the trade-off hypothesis to Syms, whom I called on the phone right before she attended a Veteran Feminists of America event, asking her whether women willingly got paid less so that they could be more available to their families. “I think that is not a realistic assessment,” she shot back. “If all women decided not to have children in order to be fairly compensated, I think as a culture and society we would be bereft. This is an issue for everybody, it’s a society issue, it’s a citizen’s issue.”