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.
When faced with the long-hours problem, they find themselves on the horns of a dilemma: If they respond to the pull of family by taking accommodations, they undermine their status at work, but if they refuse accommodations in favor of their professional ambitions, they undermine their status as good mothers. Thus they are positioned to be seen as subpar performers or subpar mothers—or both. This dilemma leaves the culture of overwork intact, allows firms to deflect responsibility for women’s stalled advancement, and locks gender inequality in place. Women are the ones who have a work/family problem to sort out, the story goes, and that’s just the way it is.
Our findings align with a growing consensus among gender scholars: What holds women back at work is not some unique challenge of balancing the demands of work and family but rather a general problem of overwork that prevails in contemporary corporate culture.
Women and men alike suffer as a result. But women pay higher professional costs. If we want to solve this problem, we must reconsider what we’re willing to allow the workplace to demand of all employees. Such a reconsideration is possible. As individual families and employees push back against overwork, they will pave the way for others to follow. And as more research shows the business advantage of reasonable hours, some employers will come to question the wisdom of grueling schedules. If and when those forces gain traction, neither women nor men will feel the need to sacrifice the home or the work domain, demand for change will swell, and women may begin to achieve workplace equality with men.