What’s Really Holding Women Back?


As scholars of gender inequality in the workplace, we are routinely asked by companies to investigate why they are having trouble retaining women and promoting them to senior ranks. It’s a pervasive problem. Women made remarkable progress accessing positions of power and authority in the

.

As scholars of gender inequality in the workplace, we are routinely asked by companies to investigate why they are having trouble retaining women and promoting them to senior ranks. It’s a pervasive problem. Women made remarkable progress accessing positions of power and authority in the 1970s and 1980s, but that progress slowed considerably in the 1990s and has stalled completely in this century.

Ask people why women remain so dramatically underrepresented, and you will hear from the vast majority a lament—an unfortunate but inevitable “truth”—that goes something like this: High-level jobs require extremely long hours, women’s devotion to family makes it impossible for them to put in those hours, and their careers suffer as a result. We call this explanation the work/family narrative. In a 2012 survey of more than 6,500 Harvard Business School alumni from many different industries, 73% of men and 85% of women invoked it to explain women’s stalled advancement. Believing this explanation doesn’t mean it’s true, however, and our research calls it seriously into question.

We heard this explanation a few years ago from a global consulting firm that, having had no success with off-the-shelf solutions, sought our help in understanding how its culture might be hampering its women employees. The firm recruits from elite colleges and MBA programs and ranks near the top of lists of prestigious consultancies, but like most other professional services firms, it has few female partners.

We worked with the firm for 18 months, during which time we interviewed 107 consultants—women and men, partners and associates. Virtually everybody resorted to some version of the work/family narrative to explain the paucity of female partners. But as we reported last year with our colleague Erin Reid, the more time we spent with people at the firm, the more we found that their explanations didn’t correspond with the data. Women weren’t held back because of trouble balancing the competing demands of work and family—men, too, suffered from the balance problem and nevertheless advanced. Women were held back because, unlike men, they were encouraged to take accommodations, such as going part-time and shifting to internally facing roles, which derailed their careers. The real culprit was a general culture of overwork that hurt both men and women and locked gender inequality in place.

98 Views

Comments