How your home life can hurt your career

If policy-makers want to do something about falling birth rates, they might take a look at improving how people are treated at work when they step outside of traditional family roles at home, a U of’T researcher says.

New studies show that women without children and mothers with non-traditional caregiving arrangements suffer the most harassment in the workplace, while middle-class men who take on non-traditional caregiving roles are treated worse at work than men who stick closer to traditional gender norms in the family.

“Their hours are no different than other employees', but their co-workers appear to be picking up on their non-traditional caregiving roles and are treating them disrespectfully,” says Associate Professor Jennifer Berdahl of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, who co-authored the study with Sue Moon from the Long Island University Post.

Results were based on two separate field studies, each using mail-in surveys. The first was targeted at unionized workers in female-dominated occupations and the other was targeted at public service workers in a male-dominated workforce.

Overall, the studies found consequences for any employee who violated traditional gender roles when it came to having a family. The least harassed in the office? Fathers and mothers who followed more traditional gender norms; that is, men who did fewer domestic tasks or less caregiving and women who did more.

The studies did not ask participants whether the harassment was coming from their supervisors, subordinates or co-workers but other studies have shown that on-the-job harassment tends to come from co-workers, Berdahl says.

The results suggest that how people perform their gender roles in the home has more bearing on how they are treated at work than their job performance, Berdahl says, adding men and women are likely to feel pressure at work to conform to traditional roles at home.

"They may choose not to have children if these traditional roles are not feasible for them, or get in the way of family or career goals," says Berdahl.

The workplace treatment Berdahl studied is different from pay and promotions.

"Both male and female employees suffer lower pay and fewer promotions after taking time off work to care for family, to extents that cannot be explained by possible skill loss, hours, performance, or ambition," says Berdahl.

Meanwhile, although women without children incur the most harassment, research consistently shows they have higher rates of promotion and income than other women, Berdahl says.

"What we really need is a more flexible workplace and policies that protect employees who choose to use that flexibility or not, regardless of their gender."

The study is to be published in the Journal of Social Issues.

Ken McGuffin is a writer with the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto