The gender pay gap is a problem that demands an immediate solution—especially because at the current rate of change, the gap won’t close for another 217 years—but also a comprehensive solution. It’s not just about giving equal pay for equal work, it’s also about giving workers the flexibility to pursue their career ambitions while also fulfilling the commitments in their personal life, so they aren’t forced to leave the workforce or “opt down” into lower paying roles.

That’s what we at Werk believe, and that’s what Heejung Chung—a reader in sociology and social policy at the School of Social Policy, Sociology, and Social Research at the University of Kent—writes for Slate.

When faced with the facts about the gender pay gap—e.g. the gap now stands at 32% globally, workers in female-dominated workplaces are paid less than those in male-dominated ones, and as a field becomes more "female," workers’ pay starts decreasing—some people argue women elect to take lower-paying jobs to accommodate such “life choices” as having children. But as Chung shows, these women often have no other option, particularly if they work in certain fields.

In a study recently published in the European Journal of Industrial Relations, Chung used data from 27 European countries to test whether the gender of the worker and the gender makeup of the workplace influenced workers’ access to “flexitime”—what we here at Werk call TimeShift™—the ability to set one’s own full-time schedule.

Chung found there were no significant differences in men’s and women’s access to flexitime—men only had “slightly better access,” she says—but she found major differences between male-majority and female-majority workplaces. Specifically, Chung found workers in female-majority workplaces had far less access to flextime compared to male-majority or even gender-equal workplaces, and that held true in all 27 countries she studied. In fact, workers in such female-dominated fields as care work, primary education, or largely clerical work were half as likely to have access to flexitime—regardless of their gender, skill level, and contract status. Chung found similar results for other flexible working arrangements—including the ability to step away from work to accommodate personal obligations, an ability we at Werk call MicroAgility™. And her findings in Europe mirror studies dating back 20 years in the United States.

Having disproved the notion that workers in female-dominated workplaces have better access to workplace flexibility, Chung then posits some theories for the popularity of this “choice” myth. For one, it’s an optics issue. Countries such as the United Kingdom have proposed flexible working arrangements as a way to address family issues during work hours, and because women still represent the majority of homemakers and caretakers, people assume they are the ones most in need of policies like these and thus have better access to flexibility. Chung also notes that employers tend to give access to flexibility to those they think will get the job done, and there’s a perception that women will use flexibility only to tend to family commitments instead of using it to improve work performance.

So now we know that workers in female-dominated workplaces are not only paid less but given less access to flexible work arrangements, which may explain why women feel forced to reduce their working hours after having children—no better ways to achieve work-life compatibility are available to them. And in the U.S. and other countries, Chung writes, part-time work often coincides with lower pay.

On the flip side, Chung found in a prior study that new mothers are much less likely to reduce their working hours if given flexible work arrangements, echoing a recent Bain & Company study that found that of the 30% of women who leave their jobs to have children, 70% would have stayed if their jobs had offered more flexibility. And as Werk founders Anna Auerbach and Annie Dean told Thrive Global, “that 30% doesn’t even include the percent of women who are forced into non-leadership track roles because, until now, leadership and flexibility have not been able to coexist.” Flexible work options such as the ones in Werk’s Flexiverse can help these women stay on their desired career track with an income more befitting of their talent and skills.

“Falling back on ‘choice’ as an explanation for persistent gender inequality in the labor market and in wages is no longer tenable,” Chung concludes. “Women are not choosing lower paying jobs due to their life choices. The current labor market and employers’ biases against them are leaving them without any real choices at all.”

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