The Real Problem with Work

Foe Men and for Women

A recent study suggests that the chief problem facing women at work is no different from that facing men. It is not balancing the demands of home and the job. It is, simply, too much work.

According to research conducted by two business school professors: “men were at least as likely as women to say the long hours interfered with their family lives.” But the truly astonishing finding: “they quit at the same rate.”

This flies in the face of conventional wisdom – as well as the prolonged conversations about how companies could become more gender friendly. Adjustments like flexible schedules or working at home often end up penalizing women who are seen as lacking the commitment to sacrifice as much as men for their careers. Indeed, the company that invited the research started out presuming that they were losing more women, an assumption belied by the facts.

According to a report on this research in The New York Times, “Men and women dealt with the pressure differently. Women were more likely to take advantage of formal flexible work policies, like working part-time, or to move to less demanding positions that didn’t involve serving clients or earning revenue for the company. Men, on the other hand, either happily complied, suffered in silence — or simply worked the hours they wanted without asking permission. About a third of them, according to another paper . . . would leave to attend their children’s activities while staying in touch on their phones. They also developed more local clients to reduce travel or informally arranged with colleagues to cover for them. Decisions like these tended to get men promoted.”

Men are expected to be devoted to their work, and women to their family. A female associate 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.’”

These are stereotypes, of course. But they are also prejudices, whose impact is vastly augmented as the volume of work in our society continuously ramps up. Men and women alike suffer from overwork, and it is getting worse. “The time Americans spend at work has sharply increased over the last four decades,” the Times noted. “We work an average of 1,836 hours a year, up 9 percent from 1,687 in 1979.” This is substantially above the norms for other industrialized western countries.

The researchers said that when they told the consulting firm that had hired them to research the problems faced by their female employees, they found a bigger problem: long hours were taking a toll on both men and women. But “the firm rejected that conclusion. The firm’s representatives said the goal was to focus only on policies for women, and that men were largely immune to these issues.”

They did not want to know, perhaps because they were not prepared to do anything about it

To be sure, those speaking for “the firm” on this were almost certainly men. The official view was at variance with the research findings. But it would very difficult for firms to change their attitudes towards work as their competitive advantage often depends on the forms of exploitation that had become standardized and taken for granted.

It is the new norm.