Deliberate Rest

Designing rest for a busy world

Tag: women

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.

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.

Aging and work

Last week I was on BBC Radio 4’s morning show talking about REST and the need to change work and careers in a world where life expectancies are going up. Since then, I’ve seen several other pieces about this subject.

In the Globe and Mail, Linda Nazareth asks, “Should we consider delaying full-time work until 40?” As Paul Johnson has pointed out in our BBC Radio 4 conversation, you could see retirement as a system in which we bank the time we’ve saved by improved productivity at work, and spend it at the end of our lives. But, as Nazareth points out, longer lives should make us rethink retirement, and not just along the lines of raising retirement ages:

if everyone’s lifespan is getting longer (and hopefully healthier), maybe we should think about how traditional work lives could change. Some figure this should simply mean everyone working a couple of more decades, which would give them more income in the years when they are indeed retired….

Another model suggests that we think of work more creatively, not as something that we do intensively for several decades but rather as something that we dip in and out of over the course of our lives.

In conversations about the challenges of work-life balance, I’ve argued that one of the big problems we all face (but women in particular) is that we work in a system in which we’re expected to invest most intensively in our careers at exactly the same time we start families. And forget about prioritizing one over the other: we’re supporsed to work like we don’t have kids, while raising kids like we don’t have jobs.

I’m hardly the only one to notice this: in her article, Nazareth draws in part on the work of Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, whose work on extending careers could help ease these pressures was the subject of a recent article in Quartz by Corinne Purtill:

For people smack in the mad mid-life rush of managing full-time careers, dependent children, and aging parents, nothing feels so short in supply as time.

But there is time to get it all done, says psychologist Laura Carstensen…. The only problem is that we’ve arranged life all wrong.

A woman who is 40 years old today can expect to live another 45 years, on average, while 5% will live to see their 100th birthday. The average 40-year-old man will live another 42. For many people, most of those years will be healthy enough to continue work that doesn’t involve intense physical labor. So why are we still packing all of our career and family obligations into a few frantic decades?

Rather than a four-decade professional sprint that ends abruptly at 65, Carstensen argues, we should be planning for marathon careers that last longer but have more breaks along the way for learning, family needs, and obligations outside the workplace.

I wrote about how Australian historian Inga Clendinnen pioneered this kind of model decades ago, and that her example suggests that we think of work-life balance as something that plays out over years and decades, and that our lives would be better and easier (or at least we would be more forgiving and realistic about our lives) if we didn’t expect every day to be a jewel of work-life balance.

I also suspect that shorter working hours could help with this, by allowing more time for important but competing activities, and by offering a model of work that would support longer, more sustainable careers.

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.

“I devised a way of working like a bat out of hell, or anyway a bat out of the nursery:” Antonia Fraser on writing

Antonia Fraser writes in the The Guardian about her writing routine:

I work with… total calm from about 9.30 until lunchtime. Ideally I then go out to a local Italian restaurant, preferably with someone who talks brilliantly about themselves, not totally impossible to achieve in London W11. I can then covertly mull over the morning’s work. I never work in the afternoon, preferring to go swimming in a local health club, for more mulling as I slowly and happily traverse the pool for 20 minutes. Swimming is the best sport I know for reflecting seriously on history. In the early evening I go back upstairs, but it will be for reading over the day’s pages, and correcting them, rather than something more creative….

The reason that this pattern of work-in-the-morning-only is something so deeply ingrained in me, is that I began trying to write history seriously when I had six children born in 10 years. I have actually written all my life, but history was It. So I devised a way of working like a bat out of hell, or anyway a bat out of the nursery, the moment I could cram the children into cradles, kindergartens, schools … with the wild hope they would stay there. (There are wicked stories of notices on my door saying “Only come in if you have broken something”, which I utterly deny.) Under the circumstances, I never ever suffered from writer’s block.

Today the discipline remains. I still feel odd if I don’t work in the morning, and if I am not alone in the eyrie.

This theme of strict routine as a way of making the most of time that otherwise would be soaked up by kids and chores is one you see with other women writers, like Shirley Jackson. I suppose you could also see it as a way of exerting a measure of control over one’s life and attention– a kid of authorial version of the strategy Janice Radway describes romance readers practicing in Reading the Romance.

Fraser also talks about having “a special computer for work, so that while I’m upstairs I do not receive those delightful distracting emails for which my baser self is secretly longing,” and being  “forced to learn typing on Saturdays at my convent school as a punishment for being uppish,” something that my mother was also forced to learn– though in her case it was so she would have a useful skill and could become a secretary, since that was what high schools girls in the 1950s could look forward to if they weren’t nurses or teachers.

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.

On the “Women’s Innovation Panel”

Lauren Hockenson at the Next Web pans the recent Dreamforce “Women’s Innovation Panel,” which featured Susan Wojcicki and Jessica Alba being interviewed by Gayle King. Apparently, it did not go so well:

It’s alienating, in no uncertain terms, to have to sit through a panel designed to be about women in technology and instead have it derailed by the seemingly interminable myth that when we want to talk about being a woman in tech, what we’re really saying is that we want to talk about being wives and mothers with day jobs in the technology industry.

One has a hard time imagining asking Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates about how they balance kids and work, or how they manage to look fabulous after a hard day of M&A. But, Hockenson says,

too often, these panels are grandstanding dog and pony shows, designed to trot out successful women and demean them by asking them, “How do you do it all?” as if they are crazy for pursuing their careers as their male cohorts would.

The assumption that either questions about work-life balance are the only things women CEOs are able to talk about, or that other women in tech want to talk about, is clearly screwed up. Unfortunately, this panel seems to have done an especially good job of laying that bare.

“This looks like a ‘women’s problem,’ but it’s not. It’s a work problem.”

Anne-Marie Slaughter has an essay in the New York Times about today’s “Toxic Work World.” Following on yesterday’s post on Swedish experiments in a six-hour day, it’s a depressing but all-too-timely read:

This looks like a “women’s problem,” but it’s not. It’s a work problem — the problem of an antiquated and broken system. When law firms and corporations lose talented women who reject lock-step career paths and question promotion systems that elevate quantity of hours worked over quality of the work itself, the problem is not with the women. When an abundance of overly rigid workplaces causes 42 million American citizens to live day to day in fear that just one single setback will prevent them from being able to care for their children, it’s not their problem, but ours.

The problem is with the workplace, or more precisely, with a workplace designed for the “Mad Men” era, for “Leave It to Beaver” families in which one partner does all the work of earning an income and the other partner does all the work of turning that income into care — the care that is indispensable for our children, our sick and disabled, our elderly. Our families and our responsibilities don’t look like that anymore, but our workplaces do not fit the realities of our lives.

I like Slaughter’s argument against the structure and culture of the workplace, and the implicit argument– which I am trying to make more explicit in my own book– that we operate labor markets and working days under several assumptions that are wrong (these are mine, not hers):

  • More time = more productivity. This is true for short periods, but quickly becomes ceases to be a useful strategy, particular in two kinds of workplaces: those in which productivity is defined mainly by the intelligent exertion of physical effort, and those in which productivity is a matter of creativity and problem-solving.
  • Uncertainty makes people better workers. Working in what used to be a union shop, working zero-hour contracts, or not having a promised number of hours per week will make you work harder on the off chance that whatever sliver of security is available will get to you to work harder. If you’re in tech, you work harder because your job could disappear to Bangalore or Romania at any moment. Don’t forget to be passionate and love what you do!
  • The way to beat the competition is to imitate and exceed them. No matter what you’re interested in or what you’re working on, there are 15 guys in a dorm room in Tsinghua living on instant noodles and benzedrine who are working on it twice has hard. The only way you’re going to stay competitive is to work like 16 guys living on freeze-dried krill and two sips of rainwater (three sips would be inefficient).
  • This is inevitable. It’s not that I want to work people to death, or want to turn people from full-time salaried workers into temps and adjuncts; it’s just that this is the nature of the world. As a business leader, I am a farsighted, action-oriented visionary who defines the reality that others live in. I am a figure out of a novel written by the love child of Ayn Rand and Philip Dick. Except when it comes to this. On this, I’m impotent.

It’s also interesting to see the comments to Slaughter’s piece– I’d say they’re 80/20 “this is exactly right” and “this is the world, stop complaining.”

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