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Working Mothers in a Double Bind: Working Moms, Minorities Have the Most Rigid Schedules

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Publication Date: May 2002

Publisher(s): Economic Policy Institute

Author(s): Elaine McCrate

Topic: Labor (Labor conditions, wages, salaries, and benefits)

Type: Brief


Despite all of the recent attention given to the needs of working mothers for flexible work schedules, mothers are no more likely than other workers to be able to determine the times they arrive at and leave work, or to decide when to take an occasional day off. Single mothers, who must handle all the responsibility for work and family on their own, have particularly rigid schedules. There is also a pronounced racial difference in work schedule flexibility: black workers are much less likely than white workers to be able to exercise any discretion over their work schedules.

In contrast, men, and to some extent women with supervisory or policy-making authority, enjoy much greater flexibility than other workers. Furthermore, contrary to the expectations of many economists, workers who do enjoy flexible hours earn more, not less, than those with rigid work schedules. Some of this differential is accounted for by organizational power, and some by occupation and industry.

The evidence also suggests that unions successfully negotiate greater compensation for workers in rigid jobs. Because women are no more likely to enjoy flexible schedules than men, the freedom to adjust one's work schedule does little to explain the gender pay gap. Again, this is contrary to the expectations of many economists, who presume that men are paid more, in part, for their willingness to accept rigid schedules.

The inability of mothers to secure flexible jobs, or to earn more for working rigid hours, indicates a need for active public policy to help with work-family conflicts. As is the case in most other affluent countries, the United States can legislate a minimum number of sick and personal days and vacation time that could be used for unexpected family needs. Vigorously enforced affirmative action can help move women and black workers into more flexible jobs.

Since unions help workers get higher pay for rigid work schedules, policies supporting workplace organizing can also help families. Firms can also take a number of measures even in the absence of more family-supportive public policy.