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Caregivers Hiding Responsibilities to Enhance Careers

February 19 2006 - University faculty with family responsibilities may be hiding their caregiving responsibilies to prevent biased and negative implications on their careers, according to Penn State labor studies professor Dr. Robert Drago.

"We divide bias avoidance behaviors into productive types that improve work performance and unproductive types that are inefficient," said Dr. Drago. "Our study of university faculty indicates that both types of bias avoidance are relatively common, with women more often reporting both types."

According to Robert Drago, productive bias avoidance includes behaviors that minimize actual family commitments to improve work performance and facilitate career success. He argues that productive behaviors improve career chances because they increase the time and energy available for the job. For example, in the case of university faculty, they may choose to delay partnering or marriage, limit the number of children raised or delay child rearing, until they attain tenure.

Unproductive bias avoidance behaviors, on the other hand, may give the appearance of being committed to the job, but they are ineffective or hinder job performance. Unproductive behaviors include:

  • not requesting flex time for fear it will look bad
  • making excuses for absences or missed meetings instead of admitting caregiver responsibilities, and
  • not asking to stop the tenure clock

Drago finds unproductive bias avoidance behaviors particularly puzzling in the academic world where tenure qualifications are measured by scholarship, teaching and research.

  • Drago and his colleague Carol Colbeck, professor of education, looked at men and women with faculty appointments in either English or Chemistry. These disciplines were chosen because chemistry has few women while English has many. They are also different since chemistry requires:

    • fast-paced publishing
    • pressures for external funding
    • competition between groups, and
    • collaborative work within research groups
  • In comparison, English generally has:

    • a slower pace for publication
    • little available external funding
    • minimal competition, and
    • mostly solitary work

    They surveyed 4,188 participants from 507 institutions, ranging from 2-year associate degree granting colleges to major research institutions.

    "Foremost, the survey provided empirical support for the existence of productive and unproductive bias avoidance behaviors," Drago told attendees at the 2006 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in St. Louis, Mo. "Employees do strategize to avoid career penalties by minimizing or hiding caregiving commitments."

    They also found that women more often engaged in both productive and unproductive bias avoidance behavior.

    "We found that locations with supportive supervisors reported reduced rates and probably had a reduction in bias avoidance behaviors," said Drago. "Institutions with gender equality seem to report lower levels of bias avoidance for women."

    "Women-friendly institutions also tend to be family-friendly for women," said Drago.

    Bias avoidance strategies probably exist for other employees.

    "Because bias avoidance and gender appear to be linked, successful attempts to achieve gender equity at colleges and universities will probably require reductions in the incidence of both productive and unproductive avoidance behaviors," said Dr. Drago.

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