Ben Grefsrud / msnbc.com
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/5/2007 1:38:59 PM ET 2007-11-05T18:38:59

The good news: Workers are calling in sick less often than they did just a decade ago.

The bad news: Women are still absent nearly twice as often as their male counterparts in the workplace.

It’s been a perpetual problem: Women tend to call in sick more often than men. But the why — even though you may think you know the answer — isn’t that clear cut, nor should it be.

The obvious answer from human resource experts, employers, employees and even us in the media is always that “working moms have most of the responsibilities at home,” and that translates into female employees having to take sick days to tend to sick kids.

Indeed, new Labor Department data shared with msnbc.com seem to support this to a degree.

“Both married and unmarried women with children report a higher rate of absences than those without children,” says Terence McMenamin with the department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. Among single dads, the absentee rate is also higher than the rate for men without children.

What’s interesting, McMenamin points out, is that married men with kids actually report a lower rate of absences than men without children. It was so surprising to this labor data expert that he checked back to 2000 and found the trend is consistent for the past six years.

Before you pat yourself on the back, having guessed that child rearing is what has many women calling in sick, McMenamin surmises there must be many other factors contributing to the high rate among women.

“Even among people who have no children at home,” he adds, “the reported absence rate is higher among women than among men.”

Making assumptions on why women call in sick can be detrimental to the advancement of women in the workplace, says Eric Patton, an assistant professor of management at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

As part of his research on how workplace absence is perceived, Patton studied a century’s worth of New York Times articles that dealt with the issue. He found 3,000 articles on the topic.

“Whenever it was an article about women’s absenteeism it was about gender. If it was about men and absenteeism, gender was not brought up,” he says.

That focus on gender, he adds, has created a situation where co-workers and managers expect women to be absent more often, and that, in turn, can creates an air of unreliability around female employees.

Patton and his co-author Gary Johns found that elevated absentee rates for women could not be fully explained by health, family or job issues."

Instead the researcher postulated that social expectations have created an "absence culture" for women that may be a factor.

"This absence culture for women may partially legitimize absenteeism for this group and attenuate perceptions of deviance surrounding women’s absence," the researchers said. "At the same time, such an absence culture, regardless of whether it leads to actual higher absenteeism for particular women, may also be harmful to women in other ways.”

Indeed, Lauren, a Cleveland mother of two teenage daughters, finds she can never call in sick because she’s worried about how it will be perceived at the equipment company she works for.

“Even when my daughters are sick, even when I'm sick, even when I have a myriad of pressing problems, even when I have the cable guy coming to the house or the chimney sweeper or the plumber, even when my mother is sick and needs me, even when my father-in-law is in the hospital, I don't call in sick,” she says.

But she believes her male colleagues get a pass. “I must work much harder at my job than my male counterparts and continually prove my loyalty and commitment to my job precisely because I am a woman and mother,” she stresses.  “If I were a man, believe me, I would have a lot more latitude where my personal life vs. job is concerned.”

There may be something to her perceptions, says Christopher Flett, author of “What Men Don’t Tell Women About Business.”

“It’s horrible to say, but men in the office will say she doesn’t take her career seriously when a woman takes time off for family reasons,” he explains. “They’ll think: ‘We can’t depend on her. If Billy breaks his arm she won’t show up for the presentation.’”

Flett acknowledges that women carry most of the responsibilities at home, whether caring for ill children or aging parents. But he believes women can be their own worst enemies in the workplace because they feel the need to give managers too much information. “Women will often make excuses for why they’re not coming to work, which opens them up to the alpha males that keep them out of the corner office.”

He suggested that women should keep their personal lives to themselves. “If a woman needs a sick day, take one without telling people your kid is ill, or you need to take care of your sister. It’s no one's business why you’re taking the day off,” he adds.

Of course, women should take advantage of family-friendly policies offered by many employers. Experts believe that may be one reason the absentee rate is falling among men and women.

According to BLS numbers, the overall absenteeism rate dropped to 3.2 percent in 2006, compared with 4.2 percent in 1994. Among men the rate dropped to 2.4 percent from 3.1 percent in that period, while for women it declined to 4.3 percent from 5.7 percent.

Despite the declines, there are factors that may keep absenteeism rates among women higher than men for the foreseeable future.

“For reasons related to societally sanctioned sex-based roles, in addition to biologically determined roles relative to breast-feeding, of course, women bear the brunt of the responsibility for sick children,” says Jack Tuckner with the Women’s Rights in Workplace Advocacy.  “Of course some men share in these responsibilities, but women assume the lion’s share of the child-related work and hence suffer inordinate workplace consequences as a result of their absences.”

But, he maintains, just being a woman, mom or not, can work against you: “It’s a stereotype inoculated in our bone marrow. You are less reliable because you’re a girl and not driven by testosterone.”

It’s an unspoken reality in the workplace, adds Anthea Maxwell, a recruiter with human resources consulting firm Vertical Bridge. “When my clients are interviewing women with young children they just assume they’ll need extra days off. That doesn’t happen with my male candidates,” she explains.

Even in her own career, a former employer just assumed she’d be less reliable when she informed them she was going to have a baby. “Their reaction wasn’t very positive,” she says.

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