Here's an area that men are more skilled at than women: hiding how many hours they actually work. It's a dubious honour, of course. But it says something about the modern workplace, and gender differences in coping with work-life balance.
Erin Reid, who grew up in Ontario and is now a professor at Boston University's Questrom School of Business, says her research found men are more likely to fly under the radar when they evade their organization's push for long hours. Both men and women will stray from the organizational ideal but women are more likely to ask for formal accommodations such as a reduced load and suffer penalties, while men pretend they are toiling the expected hours, generally without any penalties.
"Many men were able to pass – find ways to get work done without breaking expectations and fly under the radar," she says in an interview. "Women tended to take accommodations and were penalized – put on the Mommy Track. Some men would also do this and be penalized as well, but most didn't."
The study, published in Organizational Science, was her PhD dissertation, looking at a global consulting firm with a strong U.S. presence. It was chosen since consulting is a notoriously demanding profession, with consultants typically being available to travel overnight to client site and often on short notice working evenings or weekends. The company was 80 per cent male, about the industry norm. The ideal worker at AGM (a pseudonym) was expected to work long hours, usually 80-hour weeks, and needed to be very flexible – to respond to sudden, unexpected demands on time. Consultants believed that success required being committed, passionate and dedicated, placing work ahead of other life demands. If that sounds familiar, it's why the study effectively speaks about more than one specific company or industry.
We know by now, of course, that women are far more likely to not feel comfortable in such environments. But what we know is wrong, if this study is more generally applicable. Prof. Reid actually found slightly more men than women, 58 to 56 per cent, complaining about the work hours and other demands. Men and women were also leaving the firm in equal percentages, contrary to what we might expect. Parents and non-parents were roughly comparable in fretting, 59 per cent to 56 per cent. Employees who were single were the most likely to be comfortable with the situation, but still nearly half, 48 per cent, were finding a work-life conflict, compared to 62 per cent of their married colleagues.
People who wanted to stray from the expected professional identity could alter the structure of their work in ways that wouldn't be noticed, such as working on internal firm projects, which required less travel; operating from home; or seeking out local, repeat or non-profit clients, who were easier to handle. They shielded this behaviour from their bosses. Take somebody she calls Lloyd, a senior manager: "I skied five days last week. I took calls in the morning and in the evening but I was able to be there for my son when he needed me to be, and I was able to ski five days in a row." He stressed these were not vacation days but work days: "No one knows where I am… These boundaries are only practical with my local client base…. Especially because we're mobile, there are no boundaries." With this evasion would also come inflating work hours.
Men were more likely to take this route – as Prof. Reid put it in a provocative Harvard Business Review article, pretending they were working 80-hour weeks – while women were more likely to reveal they had a conflict. Accommodations would be made, sometimes similar to the ones the men had carved out, but because they had gone public they paid for it. After all, they weren't serious, were they? Indeed, she found that women who left at 5 p.m. were assumed to be going home to their children while men who left at that time were considered to be heading to a client meeting.
Her study also should lead us to wonder about the effectiveness of performance management and related compensation. The 35 people who embraced AGM's culture – 42 per cent of the men, 44.5 per cent of the women – were described as stars and superheroes by their colleagues, and typically received high performance ratings, a mean of 3 per cent on a 4-point scale in 2010. But the 22 people who strayed, yet managed their identities so that behaviour was hidden – 31 per cent of the men, 11 per cent of women – were also typically considered to have embraced the firm's identity and were favourably regarded and highly rewarded, averaging 3.08 on their performance ratings. By contrast, the 25 people – 27 per cent of men, 44.5 per cent of women – who revealed their deviance were largely considered not to be holding their own, averaging 2.45 in the performance ratings. It raises questions about whether performance or apparent work hours are being measured.
Prof. Reid says that her study suggests heavy demands on employees for time and commitment just leads to deception, inequitable outcomes and a lot of unhappiness. "Organizations need to realize that work-life balance is not just a women's issue," she warns. "By expecting employees to always be on it causes problems for men and women."
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.