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Overworked: Is the Traditional Workplace Model Bad for Business?

Why do women lag far behind men in the senior ranks of business? What can be done to level the playing field?

In a keynote address to a forum hosted by Bentley University’s Center for Women and Business (CWB), a prominent researcher on race and gender relations in organizations said finding answers to these questions requires challenging long-held assumptions.

Foremost among them is a widespread belief that women do not advance at the same rate as men because they are the family caregivers and, therefore, unable or willing to put in the long hours needed to get promoted, according to Robin Ely, the Diane Doerge Wilson Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.

The May 6 forum, “Rethinking ‘Time’ and the Way We Work,” brought together academics and executives from consulting firms and other businesses, including Deloitte, Wayfair, FlexPlans, Discovery Communications, Cardinal Health Care, Tucker Ellis LLP and Bain & Company.

In welcoming remarks, CWB Founding Director Betsy Myers noted that the prevailing workplace model was “developed by men for men.” She said society needs to question that model and ask what the world would be like if things were done differently.

Ely said that while women typically comprise around half of the associates at professional services firms, they account for only for 15 to 17 percent of senior management. The reason most commonly given for the disparity is there is work-family conflict, and as the primary care givers, women are more comfortable than men opting out of working the long hours needed to get promoted.

She reported on research she conducted at a medium-size global consulting company that invited her to explore the organization’s culture as it pertained to the advancement of women. They found that men and women alike at all levels believed the gender gap in senior positions resulted from the work-family conflict.

When they probed deeper, the researchers identified disconnects between the work-family narrative and the data and formed an alternative theory to explain the gap. One disconnect was “at least as many” men as women said work interfered with family. Another was the turnover rates among male and female associates were essentially the same, 22 percent for men and 23 percent for women in 2010.

“We began to see the work-family conflict narrative as a partial and misleading explanation, as a convenient stereotype that fends off anxieties raised by the 24/7 work culture.

“We offered an alternative analysis, that the gap was caused by unnecessarily long hours and a culture of overwork — overselling, over-delivery and associates who go along to stand out.”

Ely said while this proposed resolution of the issue works at a collective level, people grapple with it as individuals and “fall back on the traditional narrative and the illusion of wholeness it provides.”

She described the narrative as “a collective psychopathological response to the loss of fundamental aspects of one’s humanity” and a “social defense” mechanism.

Widespread belief in the narrative has led many organizations to offer flexible work schedules and other accommodations, presumably to help women meet both family and job obligations. Ely said this presents a “conundrum for women.” If they take advantage of these opportunities they are seen as unwilling to work long, hard hours, which results in lower performance evaluations, wage penalties and fewer promotions.

“By sustaining and legitimating the gender splitting,” Ely said, “the narrative and associated practices keep intact the culture of overwork, while maintaining the fiction of men’s and women’s choices.”

To rationalize the sacrifices they’ve made, she added, “Men and women must continually invoke the work-family narrative. For her, it’s ‘I’m supporting my family when I ratchet back.’ For him, it’s ‘I’m supporting my family when I ratchet up.’”

Ely said the solution to the gender gap lies in is questioning assumptions and experimenting with and changing how work is defined, organized and executed.

David Rosen is a freelance writer.

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