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​How men are hurt by the "ideal worker" norm

Everyone knows the "ideal worker." In theory, it's the employee who clocks long hours, answers every work email or call no matter the time of day, travels for work at the drop of a hat and professes not only dedication but love of the job.

It may be no coincidence that the ideal worker is often thought of as a man. That's partly because the model stems from the gender roles of the 20th century, when middle-class men increasingly went to work in offices and began to measure their worth by their ability to climb the corporate ladder. Women, however, "held the ladder firm from below," according to Stanford University researchers Andrea Rees Davies and Brenda Frink.

Whether the ideal worker actually exists is open for debate, yet workers of both genders often try to meet those expectations, especially in high-paying roles such as consulting, computer programming and management.

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How that ideal can hurt women's careers has been studied by researchers and women's advocates, but now new research is emerging that shows how male employees who break from the mold may in some cases face even tougher scrutiny than women.

The issue may be the flip side of the same coin. Women face stereotypes about their abilities, for better or worse, that can hinder their advancement, especially when family obligations emerge that may clash with the myth of the ideal worker. But at the same time, men may face bias if they don't live up to the stereotype of the full-time, dedicated-at-all-costs breadwinner.

Take a recent study from University of Texas at Austin sociologist David Pedulla, which examined how employers perceive male and female job seekers depending on whether they have part-time jobs, full-time work or are unemployed. The study found that men with part-time jobs are half as likely to get a callback from prospective employers than women with part-time jobs.

"There are reasons to think that men who engage in flexible situations may be heavily penalized," Pedulla said. "We find that part-time work has severe penalizing consequences for men. It's as penalizing as being unemployed."

He added that "There are real negative penalizations for men that we don't see for women."

Men with part-time jobs may send a signal to employers that they haven't been able to find a full-time job. Because women historically have been more likely to work in part-time jobs than men, employers may be more willing to accept that type of work arrangement for a woman candidate and call her back.

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Interestingly, the "ideal worker" is a norm that rankles men just as much as it does women. That may run contrary to stereotypes that male workers are more dedicated to the job than women, who continue to take on the bulk of family obligations, despite decades of progress in educational achievement and professional life.

A majority of consultants who took part in a study about ideal worker norms published last year in Organizational Science said they had a conflict between those expectations and their identities. Similar percentages of both genders reported discord with the ideal versus their lives.

There was one major difference in how men and women handled those conflicts, however. Men were more likely to make quiet changes to their schedules, such as attending their kid's soccer game by asking co-workers to pitch in or working for clients located near their homes. That allowed them to continue to "pass" as an ideal worker with their higher-ups.

Women were more likely to take advantage of formal pathways for flexible work, thereby signaling to their bosses that they weren't fitting the perfect worker mold.

Men with part-time jobs on their resumes may be getting flagged because it's clear they have fallen short of the norm: They can't pass as a 60-hour-a-week ideal worker if their resume says they put in 20 hours a week.

With the U.S. economy and labor market improving, more men and women with part-time jobs or gaps in their resumes are returning to the job market, said Tim Gates, senior regional vice president of Adecco Staffing. While Gates said he couldn't comment on whether genders are viewed differently, he said a resume gap "is a challenge" when these workers come back to the job market.

"Regardless of the opportunities they're pursing, it's important to be able to explain everything on their resume," Gates said. That means addressing "the gaps, and their skills and how that relates to the opportunity they're exploring."