NEW YORK – People tend to think of work-family conflict as something that only women experience, and assume that it pushes women to quit their jobs. But new research shows that men feel it just as much as women do, and that it also undercuts their commitment to their employer.
A recent article in Harvard Business Review looks at why both men and women feel work-family conflict, but why men’s feelings on this remain largely invisible. The authors, Robin Ely of Harvard Business School and Irene Padavic at Florida State University, studied a global consulting firm for 18 months. In interviews with the research team, which also included Erin Reid of McMaster University, the men expressed profound sadness and guilt over not being there for their children and their partners.
It’s not the only study to reveal that men feel work-family conflict — but it is remarkable for the portrait it paints of silent male suffering, and the way in which male silence and female openness conspire to maintain the status quo.
One working dad painted a bleak portrait of his son playing alone with a toy train, while a nanny looked coldly on. Another seemed sad that his young daughter always asked for his wife at bedtime — never for him. Yet while these men felt work-family conflict deeply, they also tended to suppress those feelings — minimizing their own feelings or displacing them onto women.
One described falling “chemically, deeply” in love with his newborn daughter and said it helped him “understand” why some women wouldn’t want to go back to work after having kids. His takeaway wasn’t that he was entitled to his own mixed feelings, but that women must have a hard time balancing work and family.
Others distanced themselves from their fears using humor, or by emphasizing that however bad they had felt before, they felt better now — now that they’re not on a six-month assignment in a foreign country, now that only one of their kids cries when they leave for work, now that the 7-year-old can “almost” make his own breakfast.
By contrast, the women were more frank about the work-family conflicts they feel. They didn’t hide from them, or project them onto someone else. The women were also more likely to take action to try to resolve the conflict, like swapping a client-facing role for one with more predictable hours. As a result, though, the women gave up power in the firm — and saw their progress stall.
Women made up 37 percent of junior associates but only 10 percent of partners; and women who made it to partner took two years longer to get there than men did.
While senior leaders assumed it was women who struggled with the firm’s 24/7 culture, men and women reported equally that the relentless pace was crushing — and unnecessary. Consultants spoke of working through the night to make 100-slide presentations they were all too aware the client couldn’t use, hadn’t asked for and probably wouldn’t even read, but no one at the firm seemed to think it was possible to stop producing them.
If it sounds a little like a cult, that’s because it kind of is — in which work is a kind of religion, and devotees show their faith not by shaving their heads or wearing hair shirts, but by working all the time.
Men made it clear that working this way took a toll on their commitment to the firm. One dad said he “wanted to quit then and there” when work caused him to miss his son’s soccer game — and his son to burst into tears. Another said he was “over-worked and under-familied” and said, “If I were a betting man, I’d bet that a year from now I’m working somewhere else.”
And that’s what happened. In fact, while the firm assumed women had a higher turnover rate, this wasn’t true — looking at three years of data showed men were just as likely to quit as women.
Nonetheless, when the researchers presented their findings to the firm’s leaders — that the culture of overwork was hurting both men and women, but that women were paying a disproportionate price for it — these managers rejected this conclusion as well as the proposed gender-neutral solutions. They insisted that work-family conflict was women’s problem, and that any solution must target women specifically. (Since female-specific solutions only seem to derail women’s careers, adding yet another isn’t likely to help.)
We cannot keep pretending, in the face of mounting evidence, that work-family conflict is only a woman’s problem, or that the only reason more women aren’t working 24/7 is because of their children. It’s closer to the truth to say that no one wants to work 24/7 because it’s frankly a miserable way to live.
Instead of offering women yet more poisoned chalices in the form of flex-time programs that only mark them for punishment, managers must target dysfunctional work cultures that hinge on over-selling and over-delivering, driving both men and women to seek other employment arrangements. Talented, hard-working people have options. They also, quite frequently, exercise them.
Sarah Green Carmichael is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion.