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Why Work for Yourself? Women Want Flexibility; Men Want Control

Nearly three in four women who work for themselves do so in order to get workplace flexibility, even if it means sacrificing pay.

In a new annual survey, business services firm MBO Partners asked independent workers whether or not they agreed with several statements about their motivations and priorities for working independently. While roughly 74 percent of women said flexibility is more important than making the most money, fewer than 60 percent of men agreed — and this gap has been widening. When MBO asked the question just two years earlier, 63 percent of men and 68 percent of women prioritized flexibility over money.

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The survey also found that the number of women who said that controlling their own schedule was more important than making the most money was 11 percentage points higher than the number of men who said the same.

Outdated gender roles are to blame, experts say.

“I think the reason flexibility appears to be more important for women than it does to men relative to making money is probably in part because women have such greater responsibility of caregiving,” said Barbara Gault, vice president and executive director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Men who work for themselves, on the other hand, just don’t like having someone tell them what to do.

Although 57 percent of female respondents said they don’t like answering to a boss and nearly as many said they like being their own boss, 69 percent each of men said the same — another split that has widened in just two years.

Men Want Money, Women Want Balance?

“Kind of the alpha male, that’s kind of what you’re seeing come out, while on the female trend it’s more about the flexibility [and] doing the kind of work they love to do,” said MBO Partners founder and CEO Gene Zaino. “Males want to build a business, make more money — women, I think, are more about the quality of life.”

Zaino said some of the stronger preferences over the past two years could be attributable to a strengthening labor market. Independent workers today are likely to be in their position by choice, rather than because they can’t get a job. “These are talented people,” he said. “They do have choices.”

Although nearly three-quarters of women said they work independently by choice, some expressed skepticism that this reflects real options for women, pointing out that the decision to work independently isn’t made in a vacuum.

“Certainly, women’s opportunities for different types of jobs and advancement are constrained by the fact that they’re shouldering the responsibility for caregiving,” said Maya Raghu, Director of Workplace Equality at the National Women’s Law Center.

“It shapes the choices women make. Those choices are very much constrained by the way our workplaces are structured and they don’t reflect the reality of people’s lives and work today.”

Raghu and others who study gender dynamics in the workforce expressed concern that the gender divide in attitudes towards flexibility could mean it is perceived as more of a “women’s issue.”

The Issue of Family Leave

“What type of choice is it?” said Ariane Hegewisch, program director for employment and earnings at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “For women, we know that going into consulting and becoming independent has been, for a while, a major way for women who are in professional jobs to really manage to work and be a parent,” she said.

Ursula Mead, founder and CEO of InHerSight, a jobs ratings site that focuses on women’s experience in the workplace, said many women reach a point in their careers and their lives when the demands of managing both can’t be squeezed into a traditional 9-to-5 office job, prompting many to depart.

“When we look at how women perceive workplace support, we see that it changes over time more significantly for the worst… especially around access to opportunities for management and growth,” she said.

Mead did say one encouraging sign is Silicon Valley’s growing embrace of gender-neutral parental leave policies, and the willingness of men to take time off for caregiving.

“We need men taking that leave and using that benefit to make it more easily accessible to everyone. The more we have both genders needing this kind of support from workplaces, the more likely they’ll be able to find it.”