Halting Our 24/7 Work Culture Will Promote Gender Equality and Family Stability, New Research Shows

Many argue that the biggest impediment to women’s progress in the business world is a lack of family-friendly policies. Under this logic, the solution would seen to lie in more flexible work schedules or allowing employees to work from home.

Yet recent research indicates that core of the problem may lie in the startling increase in work hours worked among women and men alike, not just in a lack of family-friendly policies for mothers. Not surprisingly, thought, companies that have been open to more flex time may not be as receptive to simply cutting back on the sheer number of hours they demands from workers.

gender equality

Our plunge into a round-the-clock work culture — where employees answer emails up until midnight and take calls over the weekend — is especially prominent in high-paid professions like law, finance, consulting and accounting.

Thus extending family-friendly policies alone is too narrow a solution to the problem, and can even backfire with unintended consequences. When women curtail their work hours in order to manage the unsustainable demands of personal life and careers, they can fatally stunt their careers. Meanwhile, men aren’t exactly happy about expectations for working extreme hours, either.

Our 24/7 work culture solidifies existing gender inequality, since the work-family balance problem is treated as primarily a woman’s problem. Robin Ely, a professor at Harvard Business School, explains that the “very well-intentioned answer is to give women benefits, but it actually derails women’s careers. The culture of overwork affects everybody.”

The study focused on a global consulting firm, which was not identified. Here, where 90% of the partners were men, the researchers asked what the firm could do to cut down on the rate of women who quit and boost promotions for women. The company’s employees averaged 60-65 hours of work per week.

The researchers found that the real issue was not women’s competing demands but the fact that two pillars of the American world culture remained so entrenched: first, the requirement for long work hours and second the enduring paralysis of women’s professional advancement.

Our work hours have dramatically increased over the past 30 years. Today the average American clocks 1,836 on the job each year, up 9% from 1979, when the average hours worked each year was 1,687 (according to Current Population Survey data analyzed by Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute). This uptick is driven by a more competitive and globalized economy as well as technology that brings our work life into our homes and personal lives at all times.

High earners log the greatest number of hours. Earners in the 60th to 95th percentile worked about 2,015 hours in 2013, up about 5% from 1979. Those in the bottom 20th% today work quite a bit less (1,497 a year), although their hours increased the most, up 20% since 1979.

So on the other end of the spectrum, low-wage earners face the problem of too few hours, not too many. Moreover, their schedules are highly volatile and unpredictable, and wages have barely risen in recent years. Finally, these workers often lack any parental leave or child care, creating an additional burden.

For those high-wage workers, the challenge has been a tension between quality family life and a work culture where round-the-clock hours are a kind of a status symbol.

In the research study conducted at the consulting firm, men were just as likely as women to report that long work hours damaged their family lives, and they left their jobs at the same rate. As one respondent said: “Last year was hard with my 105 flights. I was feeling pretty fried. I’ve missed too much of my kids’ lives.”

Yet despite the similar demands, men and women coped with this pressure differently. Women more commonly took advantage of flexible work policies (like part-time status) or moved to less demanding positions that didn’t require them to deal personally with clients or directly earn revenue for the company. Such choices generally stunted those women’s careers.

Men either complied (suffering in silence) — or just put in the hours they wanted to work without asking for permission. About 30% would leave to go to activities for their children’s while staying in touch through their cell phones. They also cultivate more relations to local clients to cut down on travel, or informally traded favors with colleagues to cover for them. These types of decisions tended to get men promoted.

Unfortunately, women who attempted to follow a similar strategy found that it didn’t work for them. When a man left the office at 5 p.m., colleagues assumed he was meeting a client, Ms. Reid said. When a woman did the same, officemates, they assumed she was heading home to be with her kids.

Underlying these inequalities are deeply-entrenched cultural expectations about how men and women should act. Men are expected to sacrifice for their careers, women for their families, as Mary Blair-Loy at UC San Diego describes in her research.

In many cases, women were criticized or looked down on for putting in the long hours needed for professional success. One associate at the consulting firm (a woman) said: “When I look at a female partner, it does leak into my thinking: How do I think she is as a mother in addition to how do I think she is as a partner? When I look at men, I don’t think about what kind of father they are.”

Not surprisingly, when the researchers gave the consulting firm their diagnosis that a culture of overwork was taking a toll on both male and female workers (beyond a simple lack of family-friendly policies for women), the firm dismissed that conclusion. In fast, a spokesperson for the firm said the goal was to focus primarily on policies that would help women, and that men were largely unaffected by such issues.

This response is characteristic of many other businesses, who feel there is little incentive to allow employees to work fewer hours. And, of course, employees who have chosen high-powered careers are well compensated for their positions.

Yet some professions that also had round-the-clock hours have figured out alternatives. Certain doctors have begun working in shifts, so patients see whoever is available. Some law firms are beginning to share work in a similar way. At Boston Consulting Group, one team gave everyone one weeknight off while others covered for them, and the practice spread through the firm.

“Is it really necessary for people to be on call 24/7? The answer is increasingly no,” Ms. Ely said. “These professions are beholden to the whims of the client, and every question has to be answered immediately — but it probably doesn’t.”

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Emery Reddy