15 Apr. 2014 | Comments (0)
As women continue to grapple with the new imperative to “lean in,” courtesy of the mega-bestseller of that title by Facebook powerhouse Sheryl Sandberg, much of the pushback is coming from those who question the wisdom of nonstop professional overdrive.
Yes, the billionaire COO famously leaves work at 5:30 to have dinner with her kids, but that much-publicized factoid obscures the true demands of her job. As she writes, “Facebook is available around the world 24/7, and for the most part, so am I. The days when I even think of unplugging for a weekend or vacation are long gone.”
And yet, while few woman — or men — are likely to willingly opt for such extreme work-life imbalance, there is potentially good news for women in jobs that demand supersized time commitments. In truth, it’s hard to imagine finding a peaceful balance between work, family, community, and staying healthy while working over 60 hours per week. But research is making it increasingly clear that there’s far more to it than that, as reflected in a new study by me and my colleagues of 133 women physicians and biomedical researchers in the elite field of academic medicine.
Intriguingly, while the women who participated in this study worked 59 hours per week on average — with several regularly clocking over 80 hours per week — those who felt their workplace culture was supportive appeared less vulnerable to some of the most dangerous negative effects of overwork.
It took some drilling down to uncover this fact. At the broadest level, our findings confirm the “overwork is bad” argument. Women working longer hours reported greater levels of work-family conflict (in this case, experiences of the time-demands of work interfering with family life). However, when we took a closer look, our findings weren’t so cut and dried. Breaking down our data by department, we examined the role of departmental culture in determining women’s experiences of work-family conflict.
Ultimately, we made a remarkable discovery: the relationship between work hours and work-family conflict hinged largely on this often overlooked variable. Indeed, women working 60 hours a week in the most supportive departments fared significantly better than those working 45 hours a week in work units viewed as less supportive.
Another key finding: in the departments viewed as the least supportive, levels of work-family conflict were high almost across the board, whether the women in these groups were working 45 hours a week or 70.
What sort of workplace culture is best for women? As it turns out, there are four distinct but related factors that together create a culture conducive to women’s success.
The most helpful cultures are those in which there is recognition and appreciation of the non-work aspects of life — where all employees are able to bring their authentic selves to the workplace and to seek support for work-life challenges.
These cultures also maintain equal access to resources and opportunities such as administrative support, research space and funding, and positions on influential committees.
There is a widespread willingness to address subtle and overt gender biases by, for example, addressing (rather than dismissing) women’s concerns of inequality and challenging those who perpetually over-ride the voices of women in meetings.
Finally, in these cultures, the supervisor is actively engaged in supporting women’s careers. In the best department cultures, there is a shared acknowledgement of frequent obstacles to women’s career success (e.g., a lack of mentors, administrative and research support, leadership opportunities, and flexibility) and a commitment to addressing them. In the least supportive departments, these obstacles are accepted as the status quo.
Our study is very much in line with an emerging body of research on the critical role of the work environment for women’s careers. As Cornell University’s Lisa Nishii recently reported in the Academy of Management Journal, when the culture is inclusive — meaning that women are “fairly treated, valued for who they are, and included in core decision-making” — benefits such as increased satisfaction and a lower intention to quit are accrued not only by women but by their entire teams.
Across 100 units in a large biomedical firm, Nishii found that employees who worked in the most inclusive environments were also the most satisfied with their jobs and least likely to quit. Moreover, she found that interpersonal conflict reduced employee satisfaction only in departments lacking in inclusiveness. In other words, in the departments where women were treated like they count, levels of employee satisfaction remained high even when there were conflicts.
Developing an awareness of existing biases, obstacles and assumptions in the workplace culture is a meaningful first step towards improving the lives of high-performance women. But if we truly want more women to “lean in,” we need to focus on the larger context — to think hard about how to create workplace cultures where women have the opportunity to thrive.
This blog first appeared on the Harvard Business Review on 2/24/2014.