By Nanette Fondas
October 27, 2014

The Daddy Bonus. The Mommy Penalty. We’ve seen a lot of news recently about how the pay gap between men and women is sometimes tied to parenthood. Research shows that mothers, in particular, are greeted with a new baby’s smiles along with a cut to their income, while new fathers can expect a bonus and pat on the back.

And yet a recent study has challenged this body of work, and complicated our understanding of parenthood’s effects on one’s career. The study found that an employee’s parental status—not gender or whether the worker is a mother versus a father—can trigger negative treatment from an employer. It’s an odd silver lining, to be sure. But this research wrinkle — along with other new findings — could help move our conversation about flexibility and family-friendly polices further from the realm of “women’s issues” and over to “everyone issues.” And when managers finally understand that workplace flexibility issues affect everyone, they may finally start to act on them.

Like a kid procrastinating on his homework, it’s not that managers don’t know they should probably be implementing better policies already. In fact, a new Working Mother survey sponsored by Ernst & Young shows that eight out of ten managers acknowledge that employees should have access to flexible work options, even though 39 percent admit to wishing they didn’t have to tackle such a tough management task.

But it may not be as tough as they think — because there are plenty of other models out there that they can mimic. And that, as I wrote recently, is often how change happens inside big companies, anyway — for example, SAS, The Gap, Deloitte, and Ernst & Young.

There’s also plenty of desire for these changes among both men and women. This is where the findings really get interesting. Men say, in the Working Mother survey, for example, that both parents should equally share child care (88 percent) and chores (83 percent), and they report allocating the time saved by working-from-home to caregiving and household responsibilities. About eight in ten of 1000 men surveyed have flexible work schedules and feel comfortable using flextime and telecommuting. Three-quarters believe “a parent should be home with children after school.” But that parent does not have to be the mom: 80 percent of the men are comfortable with mom as primary breadwinner; 39 percent would prefer to be stay-at-home dads.

What about the men who don’t have those flexible schedules? They’re less satisfied with their career prospects, skill development opportunities and compensation. They even feel like they get less support from a spouse or partner to accomplish work tasks.

But the flexibility pendulum can swing too far. The men in the study who reported being the most stressed — even more so than men not using flex-time or telecommuting — were the fathers who worked from home full-time. Most said they felt isolated and unable to escape work, while also sensing that because they worked from home, their job commitment was being questioned by others. That’s the same experience that women have been reporting for years.

Indeed, the stay-at-home workers may be wise to be wary. The academic study found that managers often interpret a person’s use of flex-work options as a signal of high or low job commitment. Specifically, the research found that if a boss attributes an employee’s need for flex to personal-life reasons like child care, as opposed to job performance enhancement reasons like acquiring new skills, the boss tends to assess the employee as less committed and less deserving of career rewards such as raises and promotions. In fact, the manager may even recommend what the authors call a career penalty: reduced responsibility or outright demotion or firing.

The irony: Flexible work policies likely designed to ease parents’ work-family tensions may, in practice, sometimes hamper career progress for parents. But now that mothers and fathers are in this together, perhaps they can teach their bosses that this parent trap is a risk to their bottom line.

Nanette Fondas, co-author of The Custom-Fit Workplace, writes about business, economics, and family. Her work has been published in The Atlantic, Harvard Business Review, Psychology Today, Slate, Ms., Quartz, as well as academic journals. This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, and follow @New America on Twitter.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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