Most working parents know the drill well — you’re at the office, trying to finish a report for your boss, prepare a presentation for your client or just get through your e-mail inbox, when the phone rings.
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It’s your child’s school, and suddenly you need to drop everything to deal with an unexpected emergency.
Chances are, if you’re a woman, that’s a more common scenario than if you’re a man.
An Elle/MSNBC.com survey of more than 60,000 people found that about 15 percent of people thought their female bosses’ child care responsibilities interfered with their ability to do their job. Only about half that many — or 7 percent — thought child care duties were interfering with their male bosses’ workday.
The Work & Power survey didn’t ask how many respondents’ bosses had children, which the survey’s creators said could make it difficult to assess the overall scope of the issue.
Still, the fact that female bosses were more than twice as likely to be seen as having family obligations interfere with work tasks wasn’t surprising to experts. They say women still bear the brunt of child care duties, even in families where both parents work.
“Men are taking on more,” said Kim Elsesser, a research scholar with the Center for the Study of Women at the University of California, Los Angeles, who helped with the study. “It’s still primarily the women who do a lot of the work, though.”
Maintaining that balance can be particularly tough on working women because, despite some changes over the last few years, it remains difficult to fit things like parent/teacher conferences and children’s doctor’s appointments in amid work obligations.
“The culture of work is still not very sympathetic to working parents,” said Rosanna Hertz, a professor of sociology at Wellesley College and author of “Single By Chance, Mothers By Choice.”
Hertz, who was not involved in the study, said female bosses who are parents can have it both easier and harder than their non-management counterparts. For example, a female boss may have more flexibility to leave in the middle of the day, or more power to negotiate a family-friendly workday for herself.
But if she does either of those things, she also may risk creating tension with her employees if they are not granted the same flexibility. That’s a particularly tough thing to balance in jobs such as nursing, where workers must be there in case of an emergency.
“It’s a kind of ‘do as (I) say, not as I do’ thing,” Hertz said.
Janet Lever, a professor of sociology at California State University in Los Angeles who worked on the study, said she was actually surprised that the percentage of workers who thought their bosses were missing work for parenting duties was so low.
But, she said, one factor leading to those lower numbers could be that some women have decided not to have children in order to focus all their energy on becoming the boss. Other women may have elected not to take on management duties while they have young children.
Lever also thought the fact that 7 percent of male bosses were perceived to have some child care responsibilities could be seen as evidence that men — while still very rarely primarily responsible for child care — are increasing their parenting duties.
“To me, the 7 percent is actually good news,” she said.
But Hertz said she continues to see a double standard in how women and men are perceived when they do miss work because of a child care need.
“Men are applauded for fatherhood actions, and women are seen as not committed to the organization,” she said.
Hertz thinks that workplaces will develop more flexible policies for working parents only if men start taking on even more child care responsibilities.
Still, she notes that being more accommodating to working parents brings up other thorny issues, if single or childless workers then complain that they are being unfairly burdened with more difficult shifts or tasks.
Others say there is plenty of evidence that employers are becoming more understanding of the need to balance work duties with home responsibilities.
Patricia Lee Smith, executive director of strategic marketing for The Seattle Times’ new media group, counts herself among the lucky ones. The parent of a 4-year-old and 7-year-old, she says her employer understands when she needs to pick up a child early or take a child to a class.
“It’s not an embarrassment to say my son is sick and I need to go home,” she said.
Smith, who directly oversees about 15 employees, also relies on her husband for some child care duties, and has worked out some unusual solutions. During a recent snowstorm, for example, several employees were forced to bring their kids in to the office. Smith played videos in her office to entertain them.
Smith thinks her own experience balancing work and family has influenced how she manages her employees who have children. While she still has very high standards for parents, she said she’s not judging them by whether they are at their desk for exactly 40 hours each week.
“Before I had children, I had a different value system about work,” she said. “I didn’t see the world the way I see it now in terms of where work fits relative to family, and relative to life.”
Experts say employers are especially likely to accommodate working parents when they are in executive positions or work in industries where it is tough to recruit qualified workers.
Annie Stevens’ company, Boston-based ClearRock Inc., provides executive coaching to high-level executives, doctors and others. She said many of her clients find that their employers will, in fact, go out of their way to accommodate family schedules and unexpected emergencies in order to ensure that the employee will stay loyal to the organization.
She said more men are taking advantage of that, too. For example, an executive she works with at a large company recently canceled an important trip because his daughter had a dental problem and his wife was ill.
Still, Stevens concedes that she doesn’t know whether such accommodation is trickling down from the corner offices to the hourly workers.
And, she said, many of her most successful clients — both men and women — have found that the best way to balance high-pressure work environments with the unpredictable nature of parenting is to have one parent get out of the rat race all together.
“For most of the people I work with, it’s optimum for them to have at least one parent at home,” she said.
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