Women Opting In With Flexible Arrangements

January 19, 2007 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - A new study of 400 women professionals by the Simmons School of Management in collaboration with Hewlett-Packard found that most are not "opting out" of leadership roles or abandoning their careers.

Instead, most respondents (90%) were found to be using flexible work options to remain in the workplace while managing complex lives, and 88% had used those flexible work arrangements (FWAs) to remain employed full time. Those findings were contrasted with 2005 research by Hewlett and Luce, which found significant penalties for using FWAs in terms of earning potential and re-entry.

Almost half (48%) of the women in the survey reported using FWAs that allow them to continue working full time.

On the other hand, the study’s authors note that many women don’t have the option to “opt out”-they work to support themselves and to provide a significant percentage of their household income. In the study sample, the vast majority of women (86%) reported providing more than half of their household incomes, with over a third totally responsible for paying the bills.

Indeed, the study’s authors note that only 18% of the women who provided most of the household support “opted out” by voluntarily taking time off sometime during their career, and nearly all of the women that provided that level of financial support rated “create a secure financial future,” “meet my financial obligations,” and “develop skills and expertise” as “very important” or “extremely important.” Nearly all also said these three goals were ones they would not give up – a sentiment true across all ages and ethnicities, regardless of marital status or presence of children.

Among the new study's other key findings:

  • The use of FWAs is more widespread than anticipated and varies across women and industries, though younger women use FWAs less frequently. Survey respondents said that their preferred choice is to work full time and negotiate constraints, such as limited travel or no weekends.

  • As women get older, FWA use increases (from 80% by women under 30 to 90% by women over 30), and their FWA of choice also changes. Older women add "staying in a job that enables me to have work-life balance," "telecommuting," and "flexible hours" to the portfolio of most-popular options.

  • The technology industry has the highest overall FWA participation rate (96%), followed by the nonprofit (92%), medical (88%), and finance industries (86%). However, telecommuting is used more than twice as much in technology (69%) as in nonprofit and finance. Flexible hours are most prevalent in technology (54%), followed by nonprofit (39%), finance (38%), and medical (33%).

The survey, conducted at the Simmons School of Management Leadership Conference held in Boston in April 2006, included more than 400 women. The participants averaged 43 years of age, with an average work experience of 20 years. Twenty-two percent were women of color, 85% held college degrees, 58% were married, and 61% had children. Nearly all (94%) were employed, and half (49%) were in middle or higher levels of management, with an average salary of $116,000.

Optioning In versus "Opting Out": Women Using Flexible Work Arrangements for Career Success is available online at http://www.simmons.edu/som/docs/centers/insights_25.pdf