The phrase work-life balance, once reserved for working mothers coming back from maternity leave and the catch-all for flex-time, part-time, less time – also reserved for women, has now been replaced by the ubiquitous “work-life integration.” This newer concept, the replacement for work-life balance, touts a concept where work and life are intertwined, blended into one seamless fabric, where technology is the key to making it all work. It is the world in which you can flex your life — leave the office early and go pursue your passion for a few hours or coach your child’s soccer team, then log back onto your company’s system at night or telecommute a few days a week. Sounds like Utopia to me. But maybe it is more attainable than it sounds.
Women have been dealing with the issues surrounding alternative work arrangements for years. Typically seen as a woman’s issue because culturally women generally bear more responsibility for child rearing, flex-time and part-time has been viewed as one of the factors that hold women back from climbing the corporate ladder. Women who take advantage of alternative work arrangements, even though they are formal policies offered by a company or firm, bear the stigma of being less committed and are often viewed as being on the mommy track with little or no chance of career advancement. What is interesting about the work-life integration concept is that it crosses gender lines as more and more men seek flexible work arrangements.
The Working Mother Research Institute conducted a survey in 2014 where 1,000 male and 1,000 female respondents answered questions regarding the impact of flexible work arrangements on their lives. The study found that approximately 77% of the men surveyed used some type of flex work arrangement, whether formal or informal. These arrangements ranged from telecommuting five days a week to working flexible hours in the office. The men reported feeling more fulfilled, happier, healthier, engaged and in balance. But while flex-time seemed to be gaining traction for men in companies, the stigma that historically faced women was suddenly facing men to some extent. According to the report, 41% of men who had flexible schedules said they frequently felt their commitment to work was questioned by others, with that number trending upward if they worked at home three to four days a week. The report did not address the impact, if any, on men’s career trajectory and advancement as a result of working a non-traditional schedule.
If more men are taking advantage of flexible working situations what does this mean for women and their ability to succeed? It means that one factor that has impeded women’s progress is not just a women’s issue anymore. It means that while men face the same stigma as women do, the more that men take advantage of alternative arrangements, the less that stigma will persist. It is easier to stigmatize women as a group and use flex and part-time working arrangements as a way to block women’s progress; it is much harder when you are talking about men in the workforce as well. As a result, the normalization of work-life integration issues across gender lines should ultimately help women. The hope is that eventually, more men and women will take advantage of the benefits that work-life integration has to offer because it helps them to be better, happier, more productive employees. But for now, perhaps men looking for more balance in their lives will be enough to help women in the fight for gender equality in the workplace.