Gender Expectations and “Always-On” Work-Culture Hurt Women’s Chances for Career Advancement

A team of researchers from Harvard Business School, Florida State University, and McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, has found that the 24/7 work culture and gender expectations at top professional service companies are why women employees struggle to earn promotions. This contrasts with the widespread corporate belief that women struggle to advance because of their work-life conflict.

The research team conducted this study after a top consulting firm asked them how they could add more women partners to their ranks. The firm’s leaders thought that mothers would always prioritize their children’s needs over those of clients and there was nothing they could do to change it. However, after conducting over 100 employee interviews, the researchers found that both men and women struggle to maintain a work-life balance and fathers mourn the loss of their family time just as much as mothers. The reason for burn-out among the firm’s women employees was because of the always-on culture of professional service firms in management consulting, law, and finance. At these companies, top partners might try to retain a multi-million-dollar customer with the same hyper-detailed analysis and speed-of-light response that helped them close the deal. In practice, the authors note, such cultures result in overpromising, overdelivering, and consequently, overworking.

For men, even though they also struggle to make choices between family and work, the expectation for men to be “breadwinners” supports spending long hours at the office. Women, in contrast, face career penalties such as loss of promotion for using corporate accommodations that help them balance different roles. Since these top service firms pride themselves on being always available, they would rather blame work-life balance as the issue instead of problems such as employee stress, anxiety, and burnout.

“The underlying motivation for working all these hours is not actually to produce high-quality work,” says lead author Robin Ely, the Diane Doerge Wilson Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. “In fact, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that it’s going to undermine the quality of the work.”

The researchers stress that large professional service firms need to be aware of the effect that the “always-on” culture has on their employees’ well-being and that they need to set more reasonable expectations for their teams. In the meantime, Dr. Ely fears many companies will continue to offer accommodations and benefits that often undermine a woman’s advancement and derail her career progress, while doing nothing to address the excessive work that’s hurting women and men alike.

“As soon as one firm fixes this issue, it will become something that every firm in an industry will need to address,” Dr. Ely says. “I think it can be done. Do I think it actually will be done or when? I don’t know.”

Dr. Ely is a graduate of Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. She holds a Ph.D. in organizational behavior from Yale University.

The full study, “Explaining the Persistence of Gender Inequality: The Work-family Narrative as a Social Defense Against the 24/7 Work Culture,” was published in Administrative Sciences Quarterly. It may be accessed here.

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