How addressing a culture of overwork helps men and women

A few years ago, a global consulting firm knew women were underrepresented in senior leadership, so it began to offer accommodations, like part-time work, to help level the playing field for women. The disparity persisted — and there's a definitive reason why, according to two researchers who study gender inequality in the workplace.

Writing for Harvard Business Review, Robin Ely, PhD, a professor at Harvard Business School, and Irene Padavic, PhD, a professor at Florida State University, describe their experience working with the firm over 18 months to isolate the root cause. Their column details the firm's explanation for the issue at hand. Leaders and employees alike said in interviews they believed women were underrepresented in leadership because they couldn't put in the hours necessary to get ahead, due to their commitments to family.

However, Drs. Ely and Padavic noted that the data did not support this narrative. For example, men also had to balance family demands with work, but weren't being held back, and childless women weren't any better off than women with children.

Instead, the issue stemmed from a 24/7 demand the firm placed on employees, one that was detrimental to both men and women, but only professionally detrimental to women, they wrote. Though the firm offered accommodations for long work hours, like taking part-time or internal roles, these were primarily pushed as a solution for women. The accommodations were stigmatized and often derailed women's careers, according to Drs. Ely and Padavic. Men also voiced feeling overworked and regretted not spending more time with family.

"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," Drs. Ely and Padavic wrote.

They believed the solution the firm put in place — the work accommodations — was actually the source of the gender inequality but didn't solve the original problem of overly demanding hours.

"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," Drs. Ely and Padavic wrote. "As a result, two strongly held ideologies supporting the status quo remained in place: Long work hours are necessary, and women's stalled advancement is inevitable."

Read the full analysis here.  

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