November 9, 2021
Written by Merrit Stueven, MPP ’22
Edited by Anisha Asundi, WAPPP Research Fellow, and
Moira Notarstefano, WAPPP Communications Manager

A Case Study on the Differential Impact of Work-Family Programs

During the latest WAPPP seminar in its Intersectional Approaches to Gender Equity series, Dr. Aruna Ranganathan discussed her research on work-family programs, conducted in collaboration with David Pedulla, Professor of Sociology at Harvard University. Work-family programs span a wide range of policies, including parental leave, flexible scheduling practices, work-from-home arrangements, and reduced hours—and the pandemic has given a new boost to the discussion around how to create work environments that allow families the flexibility they need.

Contextualizing her work, Dr. Ranganathan outlined the mixed effects of work-family programs found in existing studies. While some have found that employees’ well-being and careers benefit from work-family programs, others show no impact. And some studies demonstrated negative side-effects, including one which associated work-family programs with weaker wage growth for women employees. However, according to Dr. Ranganathan, these existing studies compare groups that can reasonably be expected to have widely different experiences with work-family policies, including men and women, parents, and those without children.

In her work, Dr. Ranganathan aimed to study a more homogenous group of workers to determine how, within this group, the impact of work-family programs differed. In addition, the authors wanted to focus on economically disadvantaged workers, for whom work-family programs are critical—they are more likely to experience employment conflicts because a lack of childcare and childcare costs make up a larger share of their income. With these aims in mind, the authors exploited a natural experiment of low-wage women workers at an Indian garment factory who were waiting to receive employer-sponsored childcare in the form of an on-site childcare center.

By comparing women who accessed the new childcare facility early versus women who gained access later, Drs. Ranganathan and Pedulla were able to observe the impact of access to childcare on women's attendance at their jobs and any variation among these women workers. In the author’s first hypothesis, they outlined the expectation that when disadvantaged workers, like the ones they observe, have access to childcare, their labor market attachment should increase—meaning they are more likely to attend work. The second hypothesis was that workers whose non-work networks are less likely to step in to provide childcare would see greater benefit from work-sponsored childcare.

This second hypothesis rests on an understanding of the social and cultural dynamics of how non-work networks activate or do not activate support. The authors discussed that, in this case, activation of a non-work network meant family members or neighbors were willing to step in to provide childcare so that women could attend work. The willingness of individuals to provide this care could be determined in part by the status characteristics of the children. In this study, the authors looked at gender as a status characteristic; however, race or disability are other status characteristics that may impact the likelihood that family members will be willing to provide support to care for children.

Understanding network activation in the local context, the authors predicted that women with daughters would benefit to a greater extent from work-sponsored childcare since their families would be less willing to step in to provide care for daughters than for sons (owing to a strong son preference in India). They found that, even before access to work-sponsored care, women with daughters were less likely to attend work. Once they gained access to on-site childcare, women with daughters attended work at a 7.5 percentage point rate higher than without childcare—while for women with sons, this rate only increased by 2.5 percentage points. The authors further investigated this variability based on the gender of the child being cared for through interviews with mothers working at the factory. One mother shared that "we had planned for only two kids, but since we didn't have a boy, [my mother-in-law] forced us to have one more kid and then [my son] was born… And for this third child, she is always there to take care."

The study showcases the sizeable positive impact employer-sponsored childcare had on low-wage working mothers at this Indian factory, especially mothers of daughters whose non-work networks were less willing to help them care for their child. Drs. Ranganathan and Pedulla's research demonstrates that work-family programs' effectiveness may depend on workers' home lives and, especially, their non-work social networks and cultural norms.

In closing her presentation, Dr. Ranganathan reflects: "perhaps most importantly, what this suggests is that organizational work-family programs, such as the ones I started this talk with, so parental leave, access to on-site childcare, flexible time, do have the possibility to really improve employment outcomes for disadvantaged workers in the global South. And so, organizations should continue to implement these programs, just with a more nuanced perspective of how they intersect with non-work lives and non-work social networks among their workers."