Is Culture of Overwork Behind Women's Stalled Advancement?

The speculated reason why fewer women than men reach the leadership ranks has changed over time. From the early to mid-1990s, most explanations for the discrepancy at the top pointed to sexism and sexual harassment of women, according to research from Harvard Business School (HBS). From the mid-90s to 2000, the media chorus shifted to blame women's exclusion from the "old boy's club." By 2001, the focus turned to responsibilities for children as the reason more women couldn't get ahead.

But in recent years, the pendulum has swung in a different, though related direction--the challenge of balancing work and family, and women's continued greater burden in managing household matters. Now, a 2015 study being released as part of HBS's new gender initiative has questioned whether women's competing work-life demands are really the primary problem--or if America's corporate culture of overwork is.

The HBS study, co-authored by Harvard professor Robin Ely with researchers Irene Padavic of Florida State University and Erin Reid of Boston University, was based on results from an unnamed global consulting firm with 90 percent male partners. The researchers set out to determine how to both boost the number of women promoted to the higher echelons of the firm, and decrease the number of women who left the firm.

The surprising results were that it wasn't a lack of family-friendly policies that were the main reason women were held back. Instead, the culprit identified behind this distressing long-term trend was a round-the-clock work culture that demands both women and men alike be constantly available to their boss and colleagues in order to get ahead.

In a recent article in The New York Times, Claire Cain Miller notes that this workaholic expectation is particularly acute in industries like consulting, finance, law, and accounting. Data from the Current Population Survey shows high earners work the longest hours, and that Americans of both genders spend significantly more time in the office today than they did in past decades.

Some take-home points from the HBS study:

  • Men quit at the same rate as women, and were as likely as women (or more so) to blame long hours at work for interfering with their family lives.

  • While more women took advantage of formal flexible work policies (like working part-time) than men, deciding to do so often derailed their careers.
  • Men used different strategies than women to try to deal with the problem of long hours expectations. Unlike women, men often worked their preferred number of hours without asking for their company's permission, while others reduced travel by finding more local clients or arranging informally for colleagues to cover for them while they attended their children's events.
  • While men's attempts like these to maintain work-life balance often led to promotion, women were not similarly rewarded by the company if they left the office at the end of the day or flexed their schedule creatively. In Miller's article, she reported that the researchers said, "When a man left at 5 p.m., people at the office assumed he was meeting a client. When a woman left, they assumed she was going home to her children."
  • There are no easy answers here, yet the study raises new questions about what types of changes in corporate culture might help the problem of women's stalled advancement. In Miller's article, she quotes HBS study co-author Ely as asking, "Is it really necessary for people to be on call 24/7? The answer is increasingly no. These professions are beholden to the whims of the client, and every question has to be answered immediately--but it probably doesn't."

    Rebecca Shambaugh is author of the best-selling books "It's Not a Glass Ceiling, It's a Sticky Floor," "Make Room for Her: Why Companies Need an Integrated Leadership Model to Achieve Extraordinary Results," and "Leadership Secrets of Hillary Clinton."