Just as companies are beginning to make wrenching changes to mold a workplace in which mothers can balance career and family, a soon-to-be-published study appears to cast doubt on whether this is such an inspired approach after all.
The problem is this: Such programs as flex-time and job sharing, if not deftly applied, could serve to reinforce the notion that a woman's place is in the office only if she has taken care of her chores at home first.
The study found that if a man is starting a family, it enhances his image. He is seen by his peers as being stable, competitive, independent--characteristics normally associated with managerial success.
This is hardly the case with the pregnant female manager. Women starting a family are thought by their peers to be moody, irrational, dependent, needy--traits not apt to help one leap rungs on the corporate ladder.
What this research suggests for companies, according to the study's authors, is that managers should be careful not to reinforce these notions by instituting policies that unfairly push the burden of family on women.
"Some of the responses may be based on stereotypes that society holds about men and women and what their role should be," said Edward O'Brien, associate professor of psychology at Marywood College and co-author of the study. "But we suspect some of it is based on their actual experience in the workplace."
The study presented 255 participants with two resumes profiling business managers with identical backgrounds except for their sex and whether they had plans to start a family. It described a married manager in his or her 30s, with a bachelor's degree in business and several years' experience in sales and marketing. The manager was described as being very successful, having moved from sales to middle management. With the manager's sex and plans to start a family serving as variables, participants were asked to rate the managers on personality and potential for success.
The results: Starting a family was considered a hindrance for women, presumably because they would have new demands put upon them, but were seen to be good for male managers--presumably because they would be less likely to leave the company for other opportunities and more likely to fulfill an "appropriate" social role. What's more, males were estimated to be making about $59,000 a year; females, $47,000.
"In general, women were perceived as having a conflict, that their ability to do their job was going to somehow be diminished if they got pregnant," said O'Brien.
The study is believed to be the first to explore whether there is a link between starting a family and business success. Although it examines only perceptions and not reality, O'Brien believes it can help managers avoid clinging to old ideas about sexual roles that could land their company in the hot seat.
"It's a reminder to managers that bias comes out in subtle ways," said O'Brien. "You won't hear people say, 'She's starting a family. We won't see her any more.' What a manager is more apt to say to a female employee is, 'Don't worry about getting this report in.' Or 'You don't have to serve on this committee.' "
Poorly calculated, such "acts of kindness" could be interpreted as discriminatory.
"The conflict for companies is trying to respond to women's needs without discriminating," said Alice Eagly, a psychology professor at Purdue University who studies gender issues. "Managers need to take the individual into account when making judgments, making sure they don't offer something that isn't wanted and that whatever is offered is available to both men and women."
If past experience is any indication of future trends, however, it will probably be some time before men start lining up for paternal leave or job sharing--largely because they are bound by the same social norms that say a woman should do the balancing act, not the man.