Work-Family Conflict is Not the Problem. Overwork Is.

by Robin J. Ely and Irene Padavic

Flexible work arrangements are widely championed as remedies for the dearth of women in senior leadership positions. Women “opt-out” when the demands of work and family conflict, so letting them telecommute or work part time facilitates work-life balance, allowing them to stay on the career track. Or so the narrative goes.

In reality, the success of these “family-friendly” policies has been uneven. They are often underused — and for good reason. Research shows that employees who take advantage of “flex” policies are typically removed from the fast track, derailing their career progress. Moreover, these programs have not increased the number of women in senior leadership roles.

Perhaps this is because they do not solve the right problem.

A story: Recently, a mid-sized global consulting firm hired us to advise them on how to reduce women’s high rates of turnover and increase their promotion rates to partner. We gathered data and conducted interviews with employees across all levels of the firm. Time and again, we were told that women quit or failed to make partner because of work-family conflict.

But our analysis uncovered something different: The key problem wasn’t work-family conflict but long hours across the board. Seventy-hour workweeks were not uncommon, and employees were on their BlackBerries 24/7. At the heart of this problem was an organizational culture of overwork. Men expressed at least as much dissatisfaction with work hours as women. The difference was that while women took advantage of work-family accommodations, men suffered in silence or reduced their work hours under the radar. What’s more, company records showed that women and men had quit at roughly the same rate for at least the preceding three years.

Our findings did not go over well. Upon hearing that they faced a larger work-management problem and that the solution would involve a change in work practices, the firm’s senior management rejected our analysis because it did not focus explicitly on women. Instead, they retained their original assessment: Women’s lack of advancement at the firm stemmed from their difficulty balancing work and family, while men were largely immune to such difficulties.

This firm is hardly the exception. Over more than 20 years of working with companies on organizational change, we have observed a persistent tendency to believe that women’s lagged advancement stems from work-family conflict and that accommodations for women are the solution.

What drives companies’ resistance to recognizing the underlying problem of overwork? And why do work-family accommodations remain the dominant intervention strategy, given their limited success?

Our research suggests that the work-family narrative operates as a collective defense mechanism protecting employees from the disturbing emotions that arise from the demand for long work hours. Each gender takes the key parts of being a whole person and splits them in two: a committed parent and a committed worker. Men fulfill the cultural dictates about male breadwinning, while women tend to home and family. Together, they enable a collective experience of wholeness, while permitting companies to maintain cultures of overwork. But on the individual level, people suffer.

A person must continually re-subscribe to the work-family narrative — and to the illusion of wholeness it provides — in order to block out any feelings of being denied the basic human need for a life infused with both work and love.

The problem men face is the notion that they are nothing more than a labor commodity. They adopt an identity of the ideal worker: fully-committed to work and fully-available. Other, non-work identities — being a good parent, life-partner, citizen — are expendable. Yet in reality, these identities — particularly the parent one — are compelling. In interviews, men’s sense of guilt is palpable, and both they and the organization are invested in keeping that feeling at bay.

Women face a different problem. To be ideal mothers, they must take impeccable care of their children and home. A woman’s identity as a worker is expendable — or at least, secondary. Yet for many women, the work identity is compelling. Hence, women sit between a rock and a hard place: Responding to the pull of their families means undermining their status at work, but meeting the demands of their jobs renders them subpar mothers in the eyes of the wider culture.

Ultimately, men surrender to the demands of a 24/7 work culture, in part because it dovetails with their identity as breadwinners. Lacking a similar confluence, women often ratchet back, leaving firms like the one we studied with fewer and fewer women in their upper ranks.

Employers are trying to solve the gender problem the wrong way: The issue is “overwork,” not “work-family conflict.” Without a broader effort to understand the problem and the costs of overwork to employees, to companies, and to society, the underlying issues will remain. We need to solve work problems with work solutions.

Robin Ely is Diane Doerge Wilson Professor of Business Administration and Senior Associate Dean for Culture and Community at Harvard Business School. Irene Padavic is Mildred and Claude Pepper Professor of Sociology at Florida State University.0

This blog post was originally posted on The Huffington Post. It is part of a series produced by Stanford University’s Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research, in conjunction with the latter’s “Redesigning, Redefining Work” summit (November 7-8). The summit aims to redesign work to better align with the needs and composition of today’s workforce, creating environments where workers and businesses thrive. For project information, click here.

2 comments
  1. This is a good point.

    I was a single mom and took the opportunity offered to work at home when my daughters were tweens. It did not harm my advancement–I made Vice President while working from home.

    But the long hours were true. My work schedule was 4/10′s but my friends said I worked 7/14′s. Some weeks it was close to that but being in the home also allowed me to supervise them during critical years. I attribute those years to now having adult daughters I not only love but like and feel pride in who they have become.

    My fiancee works really long hours as a consultant. A recent assignment was with a client with the 24/7 mindset. From the outside looking in, it was clear the organization was suffering from the lack of mental prowess that impacts people with an unbalanced life whose emotional set points have drifted to low levels.

    Our society’s tendency to ignore and/or discount things that make others great–whether it is individuals or organizations still amazes me.

    Organizations like Google understand the value of having fun at work and benefit greatly from their understanding. Research shows that having fun is critical to emotional and physical well-being. Our cognitive abilities decline with our emotions, yet companies often do much that does not serve them–acting paternal and punitive which further decreases the cognitive ability of those they rely upon.

    If the physicists could figure out how to create a parallel universe it would be very interesting to have one continue the current mindless path and compare it to one that adopted concepts that enhance emotional intelligence, resilience, IQ, health, well-being, and relationships. Yes, I have a rich fantasy life. :o)

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