Are We Wearing Work-Family Blinders?

iStock_000014470764XSmallBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

An interesting working paper out of Harvard Business School suggests that some companies may be relying on the work-family narrative to avoid facing systemic problems affecting both women and men in their workforces.

The study, written by Irene Padavic, Florida State University, and Robin J. Ely, Harvard University, details the pair’s work with an unnamed mid-sized consulting firm, which was struggling with what its leaders assumed was a retention problem amongst female employees. When the pair dug deeper into the problem – through lengthy interviews with about 100 employees – they found that the issue was not what it seemed.

Women and men were struggling at the firm. Work-family arrangements had become overtly gendered (that is, only women were using them) and highly stigmatized (setting up a flexible arrangement meant stepping off the leadership path and never getting back on). Women partners were viewed by associates as poor managers and poor mothers. Overpromising to clients was systemic, and that required long hours for all staff. Over-delivery was vigorously commended, with junior people working long hours to go not just above and beyond the call of duty, but even going so far as to do extra work that was unnecessary to the success of their project – just to say they put in the hours.

It’s no wonder women are leaving the firm, leadership assumed, because, as women generally take the lead at home, they aren’t capable of meeting the always-on demands of the firm. But one piece of evidence tipped the researchers off that something was wrong with this assessment: male and female attrition was roughly the same, coming in at around 25 percent annually for the past three years.

If the problem was only with women, wouldn’t these numbers be different? Rather, Padavic and Ely suggest, the company’s leadership had put on gender-biased work-family blinders to avoid the uncomfortable truth: its culture was not sustainable for women or men, and the fix would not be as simple as putting in place another initiative aimed at flexibility for women.

Deeper Issues

The gender make-up of the firm in question was typical, the researchers explain. “Like other professional service firms, it is male-dominated, particularly at senior levels, with men constituting about 63 percent of junior associates, 70 percent of associates, 77 percent of senior associates, and 90 percent of partners.”

Padavic and Ely write how the men and women they interviewed spoke frequently about work-family challenges associated with the firm. It seemed that everyone was facing the same issue – a culture of extreme overwork. “Our data indicated that rather than work-family, the key HR problem was long hours. The organizational culture created unnecessarily long hours because of a culture of over-selling and over-delivery, and while the effects were more negative for women, men were equally unhappy, and indeed, equally likely to quit.”

But everyone – from leadership to junior associates, male and female – only seemed to view that culture as a problem for women, despite the evidence that men were quitting at the same rate. They continue, “Ironically, this focus leads to accommodation policies (such as moving to part time) that do little to help women and often hurt them. Meanwhile, the larger problem remains unaddressed and unacknowledged, penalizing all employees and limiting firms’ ability to accomplish their primary tasks.”

Ultimately, when the pair presented their findings and suggestions to the firm’s leadership, they were rejected. This led Padavic and Ely to interpret the issue as one of a “social defense.” They explain, “A social defense is a set of organizational arrangements, including structures, work routines, and narratives, that function to protect members from having to confront disturbing emotions stemming from internal psychological conflicts produced by the nature of the work.”

Rather than approach the problems that were leading to equal attrition by men and women, they continue, “Instead, the work-family overlay allowed them to marginalize the fundamental work problem.”

While this study focuses on the situation at only one firm, its findings could illuminate why so many work-life flexibility initiatives have failed to retain women (and men) in the corporate space. These programs are still gendered, stigmatized, and inaccessible to many people, and they shift the focus away from the real problem: an extreme work culture that doesn’t work for anyone.