What’s really holding women back?

Published on

Having been asked to speak at an event on International Women’s Day on the challenges for working women I was very pleased to have been forwarded this Harvard Business Review article which was bang on point, giving me some brilliant material for my talk and buying me back some time for another important topic I had been researching (last minute World Book Day outfits).

The article challenges the standard work/family narrative that: “high level jobs require extremely long hours, women’s devotion to family makes it impossible to put in those hours, and so their careers inevitably suffer”.

In brief, the authors worked with a global consulting firm to help in understanding how its culture might be hampering its female employees. Whilst feedback from interviews confirmed the standard work/family narrative, the firm’s data showed a disconnect with some of the explanations given. In particular, there was virtually no difference in turnover rates for women and men, somewhat undermining the narrative. Also, men were suffering from the work/family conflict too (to a lesser extent) but still succeeding. Interestingly, as women without children did not fit with the standard narrative, they tended not to be mentioned in interviews.

The study also found that the employees who took advantage of accommodations such as part-time working and internal roles, (virtually all of them women) were stigmatised and had their careers derailed.

Interestingly, the notion that 24/7 schedules were unavoidable was also challenged as associates talked of clients being promised the moon and unnecessarily oversold, with family life and health suffering as a result. The authors also flagged studies showing that long hours don’t raise productivity but are associated with decreases in performance and increases in sick-leave costs.

Taking this all into account, the authors’ conclusion was that the real culprit in stalling women’s advancement is a general culture of overwork. This hurts both sexes (although women pay higher professional costs) and locks gender inequality in place. To address the gender issue, we must all reconsider what we are willing to allow the workplace to demand of us, particularly when it comes to a culture of long hours.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this did not land well and was rejected by the firm which insisted that any solution had to target women specifically. The authors argue that rather than facing up to the real problem of impossibly long hours, if we present work/family accommodations as the solution to the perceived problem (our inability to promote women), we create an unsolvable problem: long hours are necessary and women’s stalled advancement becomes inevitable.

The fundamental problem remains rooted in the (normally unconsciously held) belief - held both at the individual and organisational level - of women’s natural fitness for family and men’s for work. For men, this results in work having to be all important. This generates internal conflict and some guilt (which the men could separate from). Women, on the other hand, experience a different tension and are faced with the cultural notion that their commitment to family is primary so work must be secondary. This, of course, comes at a significant cost to professional ambitions. One particular quote really hits home: “I know I need to learn… and to grow. I doubt myself being able to honour that while honouring the commitments I have made to my family. That is a constant worry”.

I also relate to the suggestion that women frequently encounter regular reminders and push factors that make them feel they should be at home, such as: businesses encouraging women (but not men) to take accommodations, some senior women being held out as bad mothers and women being reminded that they should drop their natural styles in favour of hard charging masculine styles. These push factors flagged in the article are things I have seen all too often and they create a confusing situation and inevitably further encourage women to step back. Meanwhile, the culture of long hours which is at the root of the problem is left in-tact.

Although the article suggests that a reconsideration of workplace demands is possible, personally I am not entirely satisfied with how it sees this evolving. The authors suggest that gradually, individual employees will push and pave the way for others to follow and some employers will start listening to the research. In this future utopia, neither men or women will sacrifice home or work and demand for change will swell.

In my view, expecting change to just come from individual employees speaking out about their own personal circumstances feels a bit of a slow burn for this fast changing and connected world we live in. Dealing with core, cultural issues on a one-by-one basis has also already been shown to only hold back the tide for so long (think #metoo).

All of us need to start taking responsibility for this, to start changing what we can change, to talking to the people we influence about the need to address the long hours culture and to push back when it seems right. Of course, if we are senior, enlightened individuals who can drive organisational change and use our power positively, that’s great! The point is though we can all do something towards that end – that’s a central principle we work to at byrne∙dean.

I also wonder if this issue will be subsumed by a generational push back. I have heard many people comment on a new generation of workers (many without children) who don’t accept the core belief that long hours are critical. I have heard lots of comments in sessions about the work expectations of millennials (a stereotype which, as an employment lawyer, makes me twitch a bit).

The oversell, overpromise culture is also being increasingly challenged from a mental wellbeing perspective. At byrne·dean we’re responsible for running the Mindful Business Charter which is trying to reduce avoidable stress in the sort of alpha workplaces that the authors were writing about. Interestingly the MBC’s approach is bilateral – using the relationship between clients and (currently) their law firms and focuses on four pillars: Smart meetings and mailings, respecting rest periods, mindful delegation and openness and respect. If you haven’t been on the website yet, have a look!

A participant in a recent session at a global investment bank put it so well, and better than I could, when she said that “if that is what the talent (whatever that looks like) is demanding, then isn’t the industry going to have to change in response?”

There’s inevitably no easy, one size fits all solution to any of this: it’s about all of us changing what we can. As I say at the beginning of my sessions, I welcome anyone’s insights and challenges on this topic. Please feel free to leave any thoughts you may have or pick up the phone to anyone at byrne·dean – we do really love talking about this stuff!

More from

Helen Dallimore

What should I wear?

Helen Dallimore considers why we still make such judgments on what people wear, how they look and how the pressures to conform in our clothes can run deep.

P&O: The cost of not consulting

Why the P&O situation has been a stark reminder of the need for all leaders to not detach their commercial decisions from the people and lives they impact.

Reconnecting with our values

21 October is World Values Day, a chance for us to reconnect with our values and reassess the course we are on.

Where do you begin?

Like most of you, I have been in shock and horrified at the events in Afghanistan and have been feeling totally powerless.