Deliberate Rest

Designing rest for a busy world

Tag: gender

New report on women’s working hours finds that women are working more hours (you won’t believe what happens next)

Brigid Schulte points out A new report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research about “Gender Inequality, Work Hours, and the Future of Work:”

Technological innovation through machine learning, robotics, and artificial intelligence is likely to automate many tasks and jobs, thus improving productivity, freeing time, and allowing fewer workers to do more. Technological innovation presents an opportunity to rethink the distribution of time spent on paid and unpaid work, tackle the inequality in the division of domestic and care work between women and men, and provide time for upskilling and lifelong learning needed to benefit from future opportunities.

This first section of this report presents analysis on why work hours matter to gender equality, and what role time-related policies may play in reducing gender inequality, and more generally, social and economic inequality. The findings show women’s growing contribution to paid work and highlight that, as women’s average hours at work have increased, men’s have not declined. Inequality in paid and unpaid time has remained particularly stark between mothers and fathers. The report then highlights the growing inequality between those who work a lot and those who work intermittently, part-time, or part-year. In addition, the analysis shows that this polarization in paid time at work is increasingly exacerbating racial inequalities.

The second section of the report focuses on changes in the quality of time at work and workforce policies around scheduling, location, and paid time off. The report notes how a growing lack of schedule control and the absence of paid leave rights reinforce economic and racial/ethnic inequalities and are particularly harmful to parents. The report ends with recommendations to achieve a healthier and more equal distribution of hours worked.

The knock-on effects— lower promotion rates for professional women, lower rates of involvement by fathers who overwork, etc.— will be familiar to anyone who has a Google alert for whenever Claire Cain Miller publishes something new in the New York Times.

Anyway, the study is useful as another data-point in why we need a shorter workweek, and why it will have a disproportionate benefit for working women.

How conforming to ideology gets money-laundered into expressing personal preference

You can bet this is going into my next talk! Don’t know what #workmode is, but I spotted this windows near the University of Amsterdam.

A friend recently asked me how much things like our embrace of overwork and the M-curve in women’s employment (the phenomenon of women dropping out of the workforce after having their first child, and reentering after the youngest is in school) reflects personal preference, versus structural limitations.

I want to play around with the idea that maybe it’s all structure, all the way down: that even what we think of as personal preference is just money-laundering of ideology to make us feel like we have more control over our lives.

Why am I thinking about it this way? I just read a Harvard Business Review piece by Alison Wynn and Aliya Hamid Rao about the use of (or non-use) of flexible work programs at management consulting firms.

Management consulting firms offer some of the best workplace flexibility policies, including benefits like paid leaves and sabbaticals. Most employees, however, don’t take advantage of them. This seems like a missed opportunity, especially since management consultants continue to experience extremely high levels of work-life conflict, leading to problems such as low satisfaction and high turnover.

They interviewed people at these firms, and found that some of this was about avoiding flexibility stigma– the informal penalties that come from using flex work or part-time programs– but management consultants “also avoided flexibility policies in order to maintain a sense of personal control: they preferred the freedom to manage their work-life balance as they saw fit, rather than opting into a company policy.”

The problem is that this perception of greater control didn’t seem to alleviate their work-life conflicts. Our interviewees told us about many family sacrifices, health problems, and suffering relationships due to their busy work schedules. When asked why they didn’t try the flexibility benefits available to them, they dismissed them as unusable.

In other words, they weren’t any more successful at crafting their own policies, but they felt that because work-life balance is a personal thing, and that problem-solving is What Consultants Do, that they should be able to do this, and that their own bespoke solution would be better than the company policy.

As  Vivia Chen comments in The American Lawyer, “What malarkey that they think they’re in control.” I see academics doing something similar. They have a lot of freedom (in theory) to schedule their working lives as they wish, but there’s also enormous pressure to conform to a professional idea of being a high-performing, constantly-publishing thought machine; and so academics end up internalizing this pressure, and converting it into a choice they make, rather than something  that’s imposed on them.

This seems crazy to me, too, and I hope that my next book helps push the needle from “work-life balance is a personal thing for which we are are individually responsible” territory, closer to “work-life balance is a structural issue that requires collective action.”

(The longer version of their study is available here.)

“Medicine has become something of a stealth family-friendly profession”

Claire Cain Miller, who writes some great stuff about work and family for the New York Times, has a piece about mothers and medical practice:

Medicine has become something of a stealth family-friendly profession, at a time when other professions are growing more greedy about employees’ time. Jobs increasingly require long, inflexible hours, and pay disproportionately more to people who work them. But if one parent is on call at work, someone else has to be on call at home. For most couples, that’s the woman — which is why educated women are being pushed out of work or into lower-paying jobs.

But medicine has changed in ways that offer doctors and other health care workers the option of more control over their hours, depending on the specialty and job they choose, while still practicing at the top of their training and being paid proportionately….

Female doctors are likelier than women with law degrees, business degrees or doctorates to have children. They’re also much less likely to stop working when they do.

Flexible, predictable hours are the key — across occupations — to shrinking gender gaps, according to the body of research by Claudia Goldin, an economist at Harvard. As American employers struggle to adapt to the realities of modern family life and as younger generations of workers demand more balance, medicine offers a road map.

In the case of medicine, the rise of larger practices and hospitals as the main employers of doctors means that hours have become more predictable, there’s less time on call when you’re not at work, and “there are more people who can serve as substitutes and divide night and weekend work.”

Of course, there are still specialties where the hours remain crazy, and those tend to attract more men. Further, women work fewer hours than men on average, though that’s a difference between 50-hour weeks and 60-hour weeks.

As UCLA economist Melanie Wasserman says, “If employers are serious about improving gender diversity in their work force, they might want to think seriously about how they are structuring their jobs.”

Which raises the question: “if doctors have figured out how to work predictable hours and substitute for one another — for things like delivering babies, diagnosing diseases or saving lives — couldn’t other occupations, too?”

Self-help ≠ you’re on your own: New work on career advice vs. advocacy

When writing The Distraction Addiction and Rest, I could never shake a certain uneasiness with both projects: my concern that the self-help genre lets corporations and culture off the hook.

I believe very much in value of contemplative computing and deliberate rest. I think practicing both makes your life better. I think that it’s important for people to recognize that they can question technologies and conventional ways of working, and escape narratives of technological or cultural determinism.*

But there’s always the risk that the underlying message would slide from “here are some tools to recognize and solve the problems we all face,” to  “these problems are personal; don’t focus on anything beyond yourself.” By channeling your energy into personal empowerment, these messages deflect energy that might be spent questioning, and ultimately challenging, the structural factors that are responsible for creating these problems (or at least making them worse).

This problem was really driven home to me when I was doing the press tour for Rest, and kept getting asked, “What tips and tricks do you have for a single mom who’s also pursuing a career and needs more rest?” (Never single dads. It’s almost as if some questioners wanted single moms to be deprived of rest.) After about the tenth time of being asked the question, I finally came up with an answer that I liked:

If there were tips and tricks, single mothers would have already found them. The problem they face isn’t that they’re not smart enough about their lives; when it comes to how they spend their time, they’re some of the most ruthlessly efficient, no-nonsense people I know.  The problem is that they live in a society that systematically undervalues the work that parents do; that shifts the burden of parenting disproportionately onto mothers; and expects working women to raise children as if they don’t have careers, and to pursue careers as if they don’t have children. These women don’t need personal tips. They need a different system.

Ephrat Livni’s thought-provoking Quartz essay, ”All career advice for women is a form of gaslighting,” reminded me of these concerns. 

Working women get career advice for how to overcome obstacles and succeed while working in a sexist culture are beyond any individual’s control. And so advocating a do-it-yourself approach to on-the-job equality may actually be a kind of gaslighting—just one more way for institutions to deflect blame and make women question themselves and doubt their sanity. It’s the society we operate in that needs fixing, not how we ask for money, the tone of our voices, or our outfits.

In fact, research by Duke University department of neuroscience professors Grainne Fitzsimons, Aaron Kay, and Jae Yun Kim… shows that overemphasizing messages of individual female empowerment diminishes people’s sense of systemic obstacles that require societal redress. It puts major historic problems on the shoulders of individuals, who are actually minor players. 

Empowerment advice for women provides an “illusion of control” that’s not realistic, the researchers say. The advice may be good insofar as it gives us hope, but it fails to recognize larger, much more powerful forces at work, like a long history of discrimination and patriarchy. 

“We suspected that by arguing that women can solve the problem themselves, advocates of the ‘DIY’ approach may imply that women should be the ones to solve it—that it is their responsibility to do so,” they write. “We also hypothesized that this message could risk leading people to another, potentially dangerous conclusion: that women have caused their own under-representation.”…

The Duke University researchers argue that their findings on DIY equality should worry anyone who believes we need structural and societal change to improve the workplace. ”[T]he more we talk about women leaning in, the more likely people are to hold women responsible, both for causing inequality, and for fixing it,” they write.

“The truth,” Livni writes, “is that women face biases that are far too profound and complex to expect any individual to resolve them on their own.” Self-help books run the risk of flattening that complexity, of absolving companies and culture, and personalizing failure. If you don’t make it, if you don’t get a promotion or have your work recognized, it’s not because the deck is stacked against you; it’s because you didn’t lean in enough.

This is one reason I’ve been looking at companies that are shortening their working hours. I believe strongly that it’s good for people to be thoughtful about and protective of their time, and that they should take rest seriously and make room for it. Yet it’s also unquestionable that there are huge structural and normative impediments to doing so.

So showing that there are companies that have successfully cut 8 or 10 hours from their working weeks, without sacrificing productivity or profitability, is important: it shows that these structures can change, that the impediments can be lowered— and that this doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game in which one side (the side that usually gets to set the rules of the game, not coincidentally) suspects that it is being cheated. This is why I started my podcast with interviews with heads of companies that are leading this trend: I wanted to make it really clear that these people exist, to amplify their stories, and to explain how they do it. Ultimately, I want other companies to ask, why shouldn’t we do this too?

* Another reason I haven’t written much about how companies try to manipulate our attention and time is that I don’t have any illusions about trying to change Facebook’s or Twitter’s strategy. They’ve made enormous amounts of money, and invest ungodly amounts of time and energy, getting people to spend as much time as possible on their sites, and getting them to behave in ways that are appealing to advertisers. If anything, these companies are even more addicted to behavior design than we are. One book isn’t going to get you to rethink your strategy if that strategy has allowed you to pay cash for a mountain in Hawaii or Montana.

The gendered consequences of “Do what you love”

The Atlantic has an article arguing that our belief that you should be passionate about your work has the unintended effect of discouraging women from working if they don’t land in a high-paying, high-reward job. When you already have competing demands from home and children, it’s easier to decide that those things should take priority over employment. From “When ‘Love What You Do’ Pushes Women to Quit:”

the idea that one should feel fervently about one’s work disproportionately affects women, who may already feel that their job is a hardship for their family. For women who don’t inherently see their role in the family as “economic provider,” staying in a job that might not pay much and that they’re not crazy about feels frivolous and selfish.

Perhaps it’s worth stating the obvious: Passions often don’t translate into lucrative careers. Our friends’ passions included acting, singing, sports teams, and yoga—all activities those friends tried to monetize at one time or another, for very low pay. While intellectually most women know they won’t earn much chasing a dream, the reality of trying to balance a low-paying job with raising a family and running a household, especially if your spouse way outearns you, is enough to make many women leave the workplace, particularly those women who don’t feel they must be economically independent.

Gender and the benefits of flexible working hours

Flexible working hours are good, right? The give you a greater degree of control over your own schedule, so you can take time off to pick up the kids, or go into the office early if you’re a morning person. By increasing autonomy and independence, they should make you happier. And chances are, if you’re a go-getter, you’ll see putting in longer hours when needed as a reasonable tradeoff for the increased flexibility.

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However, it’s also becoming clearer that flexible working hours have their downsides. For one thing, flexible working hours create an expectation within families that parents will do a better job of being present; when those sometimes-inflated expectations aren’t met, workers don’t feel that they get a benefit from the policies. Some of the downsides, though, intersect with issues around gender in the workplace. In their new article “Gender Discrepancies in the Outcomes of Schedule Control on Overtime Hours and Income in Germany” (European Sociological Review, October 2016, 10.1093/esr/jcw032), Yvonne Lott and Heejung Chung compares the effects of “schedule control”— essentially the ability to set your own hours— on men’s and women’s careers, and find a disparate effect that’s worth looking at more closely.

The article’s abstract explains:

Schedule control can have both positive—e.g., increased income—and negative outcomes—e.g., increased overtime. Here our core interest is whether there are gender discrepancies in these outcomes. Given the different ways in which schedule control can be used, and perceived to be used by men and women, their outcomes are also expected to be different. This is examined using the German Socio-Economic Panel Study (SOEP) (2003–2011), and panel regression models. The results show that schedule control is associated with increases in overtime and income—but only for men. Women in full-time positions also increase their overtime hours when using schedule control; yet, they do not receive similar financial rewards. The results of this study provide evidence to show that increases in schedule control has the potential to traditionalize gender roles by increasing mainly men’s working hours, while also adding to the gender pay gap.

This isn’t the first study to observe that men and women approach flexibility differently, and are evaluated differently by their bosses. Reid and Hoffman’s study of male and female associates at a consulting company revealed that women used formal programs to reduce their working hours or go part-time, while men would politick to get onto projects that didn’t require large amounts of travel, or would just vanish from the office when they needed to do something. As a result, Reid and Hoffman found, women tended to be penalized for not being go-getters, while men who were working fewer hours but making sure they looked super-busy didn’t get penalized.

But it wasn’t just crafty workers tricking unsuspecting bosses. Reid and Hoffman found that senior partners assumed that a woman who was out of the office was doing family stuff, while a man who was out of the office was pitching to clients or at some offsite event. So while men were consciously gaming the system, they also got the benefit of the doubt.

So this kind of unexpected, unplanned gender disparity is something that companies interested in making flexible working hours or shorter working days need to be aware of. The irony is that programs that are implemented in part to make it easier for working parents and particularly mothers to stay in the workforce, and to give them an incentive to stay, can end up subtly undermining them. Designing policies that work well for everyone requires a more holistic view of work, a more intelligent approach to both overtime and time off, and an awareness of how unintended consequences can undermine good intentions.

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