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Corporations like to bandy about the term "work flexibility" to show how they are responding to employees' concerns about work-life balance. But the terms they – and we – need to think about more are "work devotion" and "family devotion" because that's what's tripping us up, according to Joan Williams, a professor of law and director of the Center for Work Life at the University of California.

Prof. Williams, who delivered the distinguished William E. Massey Lectures on Civilization at Harvard University in 2008 on electoral and everyday politics of work and family, and recently co-published an article on work devotion/family devotion in Rotman Magazine with colleagues Jennifer Berdahl of the Rotman School of Management and Mary-Blair Loy of the University of California, explains that work devotion is the notion that if you're really serious about your work you put it above everything else and organize your life to accomplish work goals. "The role that work is supposed to play is quasi-religious – you are supposed to be totally devoted to it and take your identity from it. If you lack work devotion, something is missing," she says in an interview.

Forget work flexibility, which is a sideshow in organizations today. What counts is work devotion, the guiding philosophy of our organizations. She says that it's easy to fulfill if you're a man with a wife who is a homemaker. "It's not so easy for anyone else," she stresses.

In her book based on the lectures, she notes that many jobs are designed around masculinity and male norms. To be a successful physicist, lawyer, banker, investment banker and many other roles in society you must be assertive, hard-driving, and totally committed to work. But the problem is not all men – let alone women – can live up to this norm. Studies of middle class men in industry and the public service by Prof. Berdahl found that if men deviate from the norm and display devotion to caring for their children, they will be stigmatized at work. "If you don't live up to this workplace devotion, you are somehow lacking as a man. If you have caregiving responses, you are too feminine," Prof. Williams says. "You are also seen as a bad worker because you are too feminine."

While for men gender deviance comes from limiting your work devotion and being interested in family responsibilities, for women it's the opposite. They are expected – assumed – to have a high family devotion, and are penalized at the workplace. Women are less likely to be hired and promoted and are offered less in salary, all components of what she calls the maternal wall bias. "This is a far greater bias than the glass ceiling," she stresses.

Asking for workplace flexibility will trigger this maternal wall bias for women. So for men and women, penalties accrue around work devotion and family devotion but in a different way. "One is a penalty for gender deviance, the other a penalty for gender conformity," she says.

Class integrates into this, and was one of the fascinating elements of her lectures – where she delved into American voting patterns, which crystallized in Barack Obama's electoral coalition – as well as the Rotman article which looks at the context of work. Much of what is usually written about work-life balance, of course, focuses on professional women or men.

"The face of work-family conflict among the poor is very different. In this context, the key problem, typically, is not having too many hours to work but too few. Low wage jobs have shifted away from the steady job with benefits towards part-time jobs without benefits," the Rotman authors noted.

"Even when low-wage employers offer only part-time hours, they often insist on full-time work devotion. Fully 94 per cent of store managers in a study of a retail chain reported that they try to hire workers with 'open availability,' that is, a willingness to work anytime the store is open."

There has been a shift to "just in time" scheduling, which means workers can't be family devoted because they never know for sure when they might be called upon. Schedules are not posted as far in advance as in the past. And, of course, hourly workers in low-end jobs lack the flexibility to leave work for a few hours – for say a parent-teacher conference – which a professional does.

Prof. Williams argues that company executives need to acknowledge it doesn't make much sense to enforce the work devotion ideal. "You will burn everybody out. And you will drive mothers out, and therefore most women. If you try this strategy you have to accept you don't expect workplace diversity," she said in the interview. Corporations, she notes, are run on a short-term basis. But often the longer-term costs are not counted, such as the high attrition rates, complications for building talent, and higher health insurance costs.

For individuals, she says it's important to examine your ideals. "Many people try to live up to the work devotion ideal and family devotion ideal and it doesn't work," she points out. "Most people run around like a headless chicken and feel inadequate, which is not a good solution."

Instead, figure out what your own preferences are, and act upon them. That will probably start by addressing "the ideal worker in your head" – to what extent you subscribe to the work devotion principle – and making sure your instincts are in line with what it is you intellectually want. Then make changes in work or family patterns that can get you on track.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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