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Not so, say the authors, who spent 18 months working with a global consulting firm that wanted to know why it had so few women in positions of power. Women were held back because they were encouraged to take accommodations, such as going part-time and shifting to internally facing roles, which derailed their careers.
What’s really holding women back?
To explain why women are still having trouble accessing positions of power and authority in the workplace, many observers point to the challenge of managing the competing demands of work and family. The authors conducted a long-term study of beliefs and practices at a global consulting firm. This culture of overwork punishes not just women but also men, although to a lesser degree.
Only by recognizing and addressing the problem as one that affects all employees will we have a chance of achieving workplace equality. As scholars of gender inequality in the workplace, we are routinely asked by companies to investigate why they are having trouble retaining women and promoting them to senior ranks.
Women made remarkable progress accessing positions of power and authority in the s and s, but that progress slowed considerably in the s and has stalled completely in this century. We heard this explanation a few years ago from a global consulting firm that, having had no success with off-the-shelf solutions, sought our help in understanding how its culture might be hampering its women employees. The firm recruits from elite colleges and MBA programs and ranks near the top of lists of prestigious consultancies, but like most other professional services firms, it has few female partners.
We worked with the firm for 18 months, during which time we interviewed consultants—women and men, partners and associates. Women were held back because, unlike men, they were encouraged to take accommodations, such as going part-time and shifting to internally facing roles, which derailed their careers. The real culprit was a general culture of overwork that hurt both men and women and locked gender inequality in place.
Consider retention. Employees who took advantage of them—virtually all of whom were women—were stigmatized and saw their careers derailed. The upshot for women at the individual level was sacrifices in power, status, and income; at the collective level, it meant the continuation of a pattern in which powerful positions remained the purview of men.
In his calculation all women were mothers, a conflation that was common in our interviews.
They talked about devoting long hours to practices that were costly and unnecessary, chief among them overselling and overdelivering. Associates felt pressured to go along with these demands for overwork because they wanted to stand out as stars amid their highly qualified colleagues.
Probably not. The unnecessarily long hours were detrimental to everyone, we explained, but they disproportionately penalized women because, unlike men, many of them take accommodations, which exact a steep career price.
All this led us to what we felt was an inescapable conclusion: For the firm to address its gender problem, it would have to address its long-hours problem. And the way to start would be to stop overselling and overdelivering. The leaders reacted negatively to this feedback.
They continued to maintain that women were failing to advance because they had difficulty balancing work and family, and they insisted that any solution had to target women specifically. Unable to convince them otherwise, we were at a loss for how to help, and the engagement effectively ended.
To address its gender issue, the firm would have to address its long-hours issue. But we kept thinking about the situation. The firm was not atypical in this regard. In fact, they have been associated with decreases in performance and increases in sick-leave costs. We suspected that in the answer lay something profound but hidden—not just at our client firm but in corporate culture generally. We decided to investigate. The exercise was illuminating.
All parties benefited from these measures in the short run.
Firm leaders could deflect responsibility for the lack of women partners on the grounds that it was inescapable. In a long-hours work culture, men have one primary identity: that of an ideal worker, fully committed and fully available.
Naturally, this imperative to be an ideal worker generates internal conflict, especially for parents. The men we talked to clearly felt guilty about how little time they spent with their families.
They spoke poignantly about their deep emotional attachment to them, told us how much they regretted the time spent away from them, and described in heart-wrenching detail their interactions with disappointed children. Men employed one key psychological tactic to manage these emotions: They split off their guilt and sadness, projected those feelings onto women at the firm, and identified with them there, at a bit of a remove.
When my first child was born, I got to carry her from the delivery room to the nursery. I fell so chemically, deeply, in love with my daughter. I mean, here it was in [just] the first eight minutes of her life.
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But back to work he went. And what was his takeaway from this emotionally charged experience? A sense that he better understood the difficulties women face in trying to balance work and family! To banish his guilt and sadness about returning to his highly demanding workweeks, he projected his intense emotional experience onto the women at the firm—a move that allowed him to let go of those feelings while still identifying with them. He started with a distinction between women and men, linking motherhood to biology.
It is women, not men, he suggested, who have the parenting experience. He abruptly changed course to speak about his own intensely emotional and biologically determined parenting experience but then changed course again, distancing himself from that experience and projecting it onto women. They now belonged to women. At that point he shifted the conversation to the male-dominated world of work. Men and women, he said, just have different commitments to work and family. This man was not alone in setting up women as the organizational bearers of distress about curtailed family time.
That psychological defense gave many men at the firm the illusion of a fulfilled life and enabled them to perform as the committed workers the firm valorized.
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But the defense was only a Band-Aid; reality—the on-the-ground, relentless demands of family—was not so easily banished. Women experience a different psychic tension. But a family-first stance comes at a ificant cost to their careers and flies in the face of their professional ambitions. They willingly complied with the family-devotion schema but struggled openly with the idea of splitting off the work component of their identities. That ambivalence is clear in the of one mother, who talked about her inability to shirk responsibilities on the home front despite having a family-oriented husband.
That is a constant worry. Working women in this situation are left with identities constructed as contradictory, forcing them to constantly assess whether they should ratchet down their career aspirations. Going part-time or shifting to internally facing roles provides an enticing off-ramp from the path of overwork, but those moves stigmatize women and derail their careers. Female associates at the firm who took accommodations generally fell off the track to partner; female partners who took them veered away from the route to real power.
A third push factor was the poor reputation of female partners with children, whose mothering was roundly condemned.
These were formidable women who had held fast to their professional identities and achieved much recognition and success—achievements contradicting the idea that it is impossible to meet the demands of both work and family. When faced with the long-hours problem, they find themselves on the horns of a dilemma: If they respond to the pull of family by taking accommodations, they undermine their status at work, but if they refuse accommodations in favor of their professional ambitions, they undermine their status as good mothers. Thus they are positioned to be seen as subpar performers or subpar mothers—or both.
Social defense systems are insidious.
They divert attention from a core anxiety-provoking problem by introducing a less-anxiety-provoking one that can serve as a substitute focus. This move gave firm leaders an unresolvable and therefore always available problem to worry about, which in turn allowed everybody to avoid confronting the core problem. Our findings align with a growing consensus among gender scholars: What holds women back at work is not some unique challenge of balancing the demands of work and family but rather a general problem of overwork that prevails in contemporary corporate culture.
Women and men alike suffer as a result. But women pay higher professional costs. Such a reconsideration is possible. As individual families and employees push back against overwork, they will pave the way for others to follow. And as more research shows the business advantage of reasonable hours, some employers will come to question the wisdom of grueling schedules.
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If and when those forces gain traction, neither women nor men will feel the need to sacrifice the home or the work domain, demand for change will swell, and women may begin to achieve workplace equality with men. You have 1 free article s left this month. You are reading your last free article for this month. Subscribe for unlimited access. Ely and Irene Padavic.