Where’s the Work-Life Balance?

Posted by Joan Ulmer on June 18th, 2015 in Thoughts & Commentary

1 comment

Whole Foods Markets is starting a whole new chain catering to millennials.  I’m assuming the rest of us can shop there as well.  Academic institutions are changing how they offer classes, and even whole degrees, just to meet millennials where they want to be met.  The nonprofit sector has a whole new model and related visual—the Vortex—for fundraising from millennials.  But I can’t help but wonder if this is the best way to go.  When we focus on a part, do we lose sight of the bigger whole  and then risk solving the problem that isn’t a problem and missing the one that is?

Current research coming out of the Gender Initiative at Harvard’s Business School (HBS) is proof of my concern.  Three researchers—one each from HBS, Florida State and Boston University—were asked by a Voldemort (he who shall not be named) “global consulting firm” to help them solve a problem:  increase the number of women who got promoted and decrease the number who quit.  The firm assumed it just needed better family-friendly policies and problem solved.   But that is not what the researchers found.

What the researchers found was something that was affecting both men and women equally; not even the responses differed that much.  But what did differ, sadly, was the stereotypical way in which both men and women interpreted the same response by the different sexes.  The problem wasn’t insufficient family-friendly practices (which the consulting firm categorically refused to hear, insisting the problem just existed for women—no wonder it doesn’t want its name released as who would hire a consulting firm that ignores the data and insists on pre-judged answers to an ill-defined problem?) but the expectation of a 24/7 work culture that was equally damaging to women and men.

The existence of a 24/7 work culture is old news.  Since 1979 the average number of hours Americans work has increased 9%, from 1687 hours to 1836 hours, with some variation in the increase depending upon where on the pay scale a person sits:  the lowest 20% have seen a 20% increase in the number of their hours, while those in the 60-95% range have seen an increase in their hours of working of only 5%.   Add to that the globalization of the world of work and the continued expansion of technology, and way too many people are telling you that they are working—or feel as if they are working because of the incessant beeps, pings and whistles—24/7.

At the consulting firm under review, the average work week was 60-65 hours causing both sexes the same problem:  the challenge of balancing work and family.  In the 107 employee interviews the researchers did, men and women complained equally that the work culture played havoc with their family lives and matched their quitting rates to that of women.  In other words, no differences.

But again, where there were differences were in how the sexes responded to the demanding hours and how others reacted to those responses.  Women played by the rules using flex-time or going part-time or moving into less intense jobs.  No surprise that women’s rate of promotion took a hit.  Men, on the other hand, either went along, simply worked as they pleased without seeking permission, got colleagues to cover for them, or cultivated local clients to cut back on travel.  Approximately 1/3 of the men said they’d leave to watch kids’ activities all the while using technology to stay connected to work.  And men got promoted.  So women play by the rules and men are mavericks.

But here’s the part that really bites: the stereotypes of the first ¾ of the 20th century still reign!  When women played the maverick role and left at 5:00, those who watched assumed she was leaving to go take care of kids and hearth.  But when men were observed leaving at 5:00, the assumption was he was going to meet a client.  Really!  Even today!  Two quotes from employees at the consulting sum it up.  Can you tell which sex made which statement?

“What do I want people to worry about when they wake up first thing in the morning?  For project managers, I want them to worry about the project.  Women are the project managers in the home, so it is hard for them to spend the necessary time, energy and effort to be viewed here as senior leaders.”

“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.”[1]

As we dinosaurs of the women’s movement of the last century said, again and again and again, and then a few more times, solving the inequities of the sexes—from expectations and restrictions to compensation to ridding society of stereotypes—is not just women’s problem; it is a problem of all sexes equally.  And the unnecessary expectation of a 24/7 work culture is not a problem exclusive of for-profits, but is a problem of our sector as well.  Sadly, our responses are no less stereotypical and myopic than those of our for-profit colleagues.  We’re looking to solve the wrong problem with the wrong solution.


[1] The first was said by a male; the second by a female.




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