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Washington - A revealing – and depressing – article in this month’s Harvard Business Review shows that no matter how much power woman executives gain, or how much lip service male executives might publicly pay, family issues continue to be seen as a woman’s problem.
Harvard Business School professor Boris Groysberg and research associate Robin Abrahams looked at interviews with nearly 4 000 executives conducted by Harvard students from 2008 to 2013. Forty-four percent of the interviewees were women.
While the men and women often had the same job titles, the similarities stopped there.
The first difference between male and female executives is in the way they frame work-life conflicts. The men tend to choose work without regret when conflicts arise because they frame their family role as “breadwinner”. This seems to alleviate any guilt.
One interviewee said he didn’t regret his divorce because he was always a good provider and was able to achieve his goals, and now he spent more time with his children at weekends.
Another said: “The 10 minutes I give my kids at night is 1 million times greater than spending that 10 minutes at work.”
As the authors point out, most women would not brag about spending only 10 minutes a day with their children.
Contrast this with how a woman executive frames her experience: “When you are paid well, you can get all the (practical) help you need.
“What is the most difficult thing, though – what I see my woman friends leave their careers for – is the real emotional guilt of not spending enough time with their children. The guilt of missing out.”
That women are paying for the practical help – while male executives tend to receive practical help from a stay-at-home spouse – might explain the guilt.
According to the article, “Fully 88 percent of the men are married, compared with 70 percent of the women. And 60 percent of the men have spouses who don’t work full-time outside the home, compared with only 10 percent of the women. The men have on average 2.22 children; the women, 1.67.”
Women interviewed were more likely to say that they were avoiding marriage and children because they didn’t want to deal with the potential conflict.
“Because I’m not a mother, I haven’t experienced the major driver of inequality: having children,” one woman said. “People assume that if you don’t have kids, you can’t have kids or you’re a hard-driving bitch. So I haven’t had any negative career repercussions, but I’ve probably been judged personally.”
The most disheartening thing about the survey results is that executives – male and female – continue to see the tension between work and family as a women’s problem.
Male executives admit they don’t prioritise their families enough, and they don’t seem too bothered by this. They praise their spouses for taking over the home front entirely, while woman executives praise their spouses for not interfering with their careers.
As Rebecca Traister recently pointed out in the New Republic, when we’re trying to solve the problem of there not being enough women in the upper echelons of business, tech and politics, we direct these conversations at women themselves.
“Lean in, we tell them! Marry a man who will stay at home! But the problem here isn’t women’s lack of ambition or, necessarily, their lack of support at home. The issue is that we need to get men to acknowledge work-life conflicts as an everyone issue, not a women’s issue or a mom issue.”
But Traister is more optimistic than I am. She says that to get work-life balance issues on everyone’s radar, women need to “send aggressive messages about what’s wrong not just to each other, but to the dudes”.
The problem, as outlined in the Harvard piece, is that male executives – and here, we are talking about a small percentage of super high-achieving men who run things, not men as a whole – don’t seem to care about being at home more. I don’t see how aggressively worded messages will change that.
If there’s someone who will work insane hours, why would you give a promotion to someone who can’t or doesn’t want to? – Slate/ Washington Post News Service