Masculinity & Work-Family Policy

7 Sep

Photo Credit: Road Fun

By Erin K. Anderson.

A few weeks ago several news outlets, including the New York Times, reported on a recent preliminary study conducted by three economists on the costs and benefits of using a work-family policy available to employees (Equal But Inequitable: Who Benefits from Gender-Neutral Tenure Clock Stopping Policies?).  Heather Antecol, Kelly Bedard, and Jenna Stearns, claim that academic men are more likely to utilize “stop the clock” policies in order to gain an additional year in which to conduct, write, and publish research, and in turn increase their chances of receiving tenure.  Women who extend their tenure clock at these same schools, however, are more likely to suffer professionally and fail to receive tenure in their first academic jobs.

This study, and others that examine similar patterns of work-family policy use, might lead us to conclude that “gender neutral” policies are beneficial for men’s careers, but harmful for women’s.  Women who use family friendly policies might really be better able to juggle the demands of work and family, but men who use the policies are able to put additional effort into their workplace success and use the time to get ahead. This is probably due to the fact that the wives of these academic men are still the primary caregivers.  Much of the recent discussion about this research contends that gender neutral policies don’t even the playing field, rather they offer an advantage to men.

Before we move to abolish work-family policies that extend benefits to men, however, I think we need to consider a few key points.  First, there are relatively few professions with the same “sink or swim” deadlines found in academe.  Careers in the legal professions or medicine might have some of these hurdles to success, but in many ways academe is its own unique environment and the path to success, especially in a “publish or perish” environment, is unlike most other workplaces.  Second, the focus on outcomes for those who use family friendly policies fails to consider the people in the positions to evaluate the success of their junior colleagues.  Who decides whether an academic has performed “well enough” to receive tenure?  What is the basis for their decision making process? What do these deciders look like? I think the problems are less about policy and more about the people in power in the workplace.

The measures of success in the workplace are not merely objective criteria, but are determined by employers and supervisors.  In academe, these supervisors, department chairs, deans, and college presidents, are most often men.  It is the people in these positions of power and authority in the workplace that establish the thresholds for tenure and perpetuate the masculine messages, criteria, and patterns associated with professional success. Two statements in Antecol, Bedard, and Stearns’ research should alert us to this pattern.  First, they state, “If the clock is stopped and the individual goes up for tenure later than she otherwise would have, departments and outside letter-writers are supposed to be told to disregard the additional time spent as an assistant professor.  However, it is not clear how these individuals are actually evaluated” (p. 6).  Second, “the primary mechanism driving the tenure results appears to be that men publish more in top-5 journals after the policies are implemented, but women do not.  This suggests that these policies cause within-university tenure standards to rise” (p. 24).

We should also be asking questions about men who utilize the stop the clock policies and do in fact devote more time and attention to their families, rather than their research.  When they are held to the same publication standards as their male colleagues who use the policy and increase their research productivity, these men are also more likely to fail to achieve tenure.  If a faculty member isn’t granted tenure, they effectively lose their job and must search for a new one.  Thus, any academic who uses the policy as intended, to press the pause button on research and stabilize publication expectations in an effort to devote time and attention to the care of a new child in a family, is likely to suffer.  Do the culture of the workplace and these potential consequences prevent men from contributing more to family care?  Does this further disadvantage women?

Rather than take the findings of this research as a moment to panic about gender neutral policies in the workplace, we should take this as an opportunity to think about the structures of leadership, the people who fulfill positions of authority, and the culture of a profession.  And how these might present challenges not only for women in the workplace, but for men who truly do want to utilize family-friendly policies to contribute to caregiving and other family needs.  If men in authority don’t allow or encourage greater contributions in the family sphere, then patterns of paternal breadwinning and maternal caregiving are simply perpetuated.  And men, women, and children may all suffer from the hurdles to women’s workplace success and the challenges to men’s greater family involvement.

Erin K. Anderson is Associate Professor of Sociology at Washington College. Her research focuses on the experiences of gender at individual, interactional, and institutional levels. Her most recent work about men and parental leave policy usage appears in Family Friendly Policies and Practices in Academe, published by Lexington Books in 2015.

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