Work-life balance is often framed as a woman's problem, but it's something men are conflicted about, too. A 2013 Pew study found that half of all working fathers say it's difficult to balance work and family responsibilities, compared with 56 percent of working mothers. Forty-six percent of working fathers said they spend too little time with their children, compared with 23 percent of working mothers.
Though men and women both struggle with work-life balance, a new study shows there is a gender gap in terms of how men and women respond to this problem — and how they are perceived in the process. The study found that women are more likely to pick one extreme or another: to throw themselves into their work to the exclusion of their families, or to back off their careers. Some men, on the other hand, found a middle way: they've figured out how to "pass" as fully devoted workers while actually pursuing a less intense work schedule. This difference is significant because it shows that overall work demands are not the only root obstacle in achieving work-life balance — gender expectations are also a significant factor.
How men use "under-the-radar" strategies to spend time with their families
A study by Erin Reid, a Harvard-educated professor of business at Boston University, showed that men and women alike suffer from expectations that they be "devoted workers" who are always on and available for work. Reid conducted her research over the course of two years at a top strategy-consulting firm where employees were expected to make work their first priority.
Reid interviewed 113 workers, 82 of whom were currently consultants at the firm. Sixty-four of them were men and 18 were women, a number commensurate with the overall gender breakdown at the company. Employees felt immense pressure to be fully available 24/7 to meet the demands of the job, which regularly included late-night or weekend meetings, last-minute travel, and even relocation abroad. These "overworked and underfamilied" workers suffered from poor health, substance addictions, and feelings of dissatisfaction from grueling job demands.
Reid interviewed one employee who described scrambling at 11 pm to assemble a team online and turn around a project by the next day. Others described having to answer emails and phone calls immediately or to be prepared to travel for work on short notice.
A man described going skiing with his son one week while managing to appear to be working full-time
Successful employees were described in terms of their commitment and ready availability rather than in terms of their skills and knowledge. These traits were reinforced by rewards: favorable evaluations, bonuses, and promotions. Some employees thrived on this lifestyle. Others, despite their dissatisfaction with the demands of the job, simply embraced them, working the long hours that were expected of them.
But other workers, mostly men, resisted the long hours and intense demands. They were able to circumvent these expectations by "passing" as devoted workers while making accommodations that actually lightened their workload, allowing them to work shorter and more predictable hours and travel less. They did so by employing small, under-the-radar strategies, such as cultivating local client projects, working from home, or assembling a team of colleagues who had a similar mindset about work-life balance.
One man described going skiing with his son five days in one week while managing to appear to be working full-time. By being on his mobile and email and available at night, he was able to give the impression that he was enacting the sort of devotion the firm implicitly required. This man was described by others in the company as a "rising star," eventually receiving a top performance evaluation and promotion. He successfully passed as a devoted worker.
Passing is a self-protective mechanism, famously described by the sociologist Erving Goffman, that allows stigmatized members of society to cover up their status when they are in an unfriendly or unaccepting environment by appearing similar to those who are in positions of privilege. Someone who is gay and pretending to be straight because he is in an LGBT-hostile environment is passing. So is a black person escaping discrimination by pretending to be white, or a disabled or mentally ill person pretending to be healthy in order to not jeopardize his job. Being seen as a devoted worker confers high status in many workplace environments; not being so is often highly stigmatized, and has traditionally affected women.
Why women can't get away with "passing"
In Reid's research, women, more often than men, tended either to embrace grueling work expectations or to openly "reveal" their status as less-than-devoted workers. In other words, they were either less apt or less able to employ passing strategies. They tended to make more visible, structural changes to reduce their workload by taking formal accommodations, such as maternity leave or part-time work. As a result, they were penalized with lower performance ratings and fewer promotions.
Women may be less apt to pass perhaps because, Reid speculates, they are more conditioned than men to play by the rules — and those rules are different for them. "We know women are told from the get-go that they can take an extended leave, so then when they have children they do that," Reid told me.
Women also suffer from stereotypes. Women in the workplace endure perceptions that they are either too mild or too aggressive, perceptions that lead to what Joan C. Williams and Amy J.C. Cuddy call "microinequities that amount to death by a thousand cuts." Things worsen when women become parents. "Women fall behind by choice, so the thinking goes," write Crawford and Cuddy. "Recent research, however, shows that even when women maintain their professional ambitions, motherhood often triggers strong and blatant workplace bias."
Meanwhile, men benefit from the stereotype that they already are ideal workers, an image that, once formed, is easy to maintain. At the firm Reid studied, many of those who passed for committed workers benefited from a "halo effect": "If you developed a good reputation with managers or with partners, that reputation would spread," Reid explained. But women who are mothers are "subject to constant evaluation about whether they are good mothers." Their time is scrutinized, even policed, in a way that men's is not. In one example, women who left work at 5 were assumed to be going home to their children, while men who left at 5 were assumed to be going to meet a client.
At the same time, gendered stereotypes also work against men. Men who take even short periods of time off for family are penalized with lower performance ratings and fewer rewards. Even at firms where men are offered generous paid paternity leave, men are reluctant to take full advantage of it, for fear of "losing face" at the office or letting down their team members.
One man Reid interviewed was strongly discouraged from taking the 12 weeks of paternity leave he was allowed under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Under pressure, he ended up taking just six weeks of unpaid leave, but was stigmatized for that decision: even after he returned, people held the impression that he'd taken a whole three months off, and he failed to receive a favorable evaluation or promotion at the end of the year.
Another man remembered having been stigmatized for taking two weeks of paternity leave despite having worked for part of that time. But when he took a three-week vacation later that same year, it was in no way seen as a conflict with his devotion to his firm. This was, Reid writes, not as inconsistent as it might seem: "Taking on mundane responsibilities in one's family life can threaten one's devotion to work, while affording an expensive vacation may be instead contingent upon devotion to and success at work."
The real solution: companies should stop making impossible demands of their employees
Passing works. Some people even get pretty good at it. But it's not an optimal strategy. Not only do employees suffer from the stress of deception and the dissonance of having to pretend to be who they're not, companies suffer, too. Reid says, "The men who were able to pass were rated as highly as the men who were embracing the ideal worker norm. Their performance was rated the same or even a little bit higher." And yet these men left the company at a higher rate.
Although people leave companies for all sorts of reasons, Reid suspects that lack of fit with the organizational culture is one significant factor. Even if they successfully pass, the company eventually risks losing them if the sort of worker they want to be — someone whose first priority isn't the company, and who wants more say in how they spend their time — doesn't fit in with the sort of worker the company demands: committed and devoted at all costs. The lesson, according to Reid, is clear: "If the organization wants to keep these people, they need to be able to manage the work so that people can work less and feel they have more control."
Men and women alike struggle to meet the devoted-worker ideal that is demanded at so many companies
That so many employees were able to pass as devoted workers shows that it is possible to be more efficient and to do high-quality work in less time. But the company's response to Reid's findings was not to shift its expectations; it was to ask her if she could help them teach women how to pass, as well. The ideal of worker devotion was so entrenched at this company that it did not seem to occur to management that altering the requirements to meet that ideal could be one possible approach.
There has been much focus on how women struggle to meet the demands required by professional workplaces. But Reid's research shows there isn't all that big a difference between men and women in this regard: both may have trouble meeting the devoted-worker ideal that is demanded at so many companies. Rather, the focus should shift to the many subtle and overt differences in how men and women are treated from the start.