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How Class Anxiety and Masculinity Fears Push Men to Work Longer Hours

A work culture in which long hours signal value and status is bad for everyone.
 
 
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How many employed American mothers work more than 50 hours a week? Go on, guess. I've been asking lots of people that question lately. Most guess around 50 percent.

The truth is nine percent.

Nine percent of working moms clock more than 50 hours a week during the key years of career advancement: ages 25 to 44. If we limit the sample to mothers with at least a college degree, the number rises only slightly, to 13.9 percent. (These statistics came from special tabulations of data from the U.S. Census Bureau's 2011 American Community Survey.)

This "long hours problem," analyzed so insightfully by Robin Ely and Irene Padavic, is a key reason why the percentage of women in top jobs has stalled at about 14 percent, a number that has barely budged in the past decade. We can't expect progress when the fast track that leads to top jobs requires a time commitment that excludes most mothers and, by extension, most women. A recent study by Joni Hersch of Vanderbilt Law School found that the mothers most likely to enter the fast track -- graduates of elite universities -- are less likely to be working full-time than mothers with less prestigious degrees. Only 45.3 percent of mothers who graduated from top-tier institutions and only 34.8 percent of MBAs have full-time jobs. Most aren't full-time homemakers: in addition to parenting, they typically have part-time jobs or community service roles. But you can bet your boots it's under-valued work that rarely, if ever, leads to positions of power.

Despite the obvious importance of the hours problem, progress has been limited. An increasingly common response is to declare victory.

"What flexibility means today is not part-time," the head of work-life at one large organization told me recently. "What people want is the ability to work anytime, anywhere." That's true if your target labor pool is twenty-somethings and men married to homemakers. The head of HR at another large organization asked, when I described the hours problem, "What do you mean, how can we get women to work more hours?"

We can't get mothers to work more hours. We've tried, and failed, for 40 years. Mothers won't bite for a simple reason: if they work 55 hours a week, they will leave home at, say, 8:30 and return at 8:30 every day of the workweek, assuming an average commute time. Most moms have this one little hang-up: they want to see their children awake. Increasingly, many fathers do, too.

And yet, after 40 years of intensive effort, the work-life frontier looks grim. Recent events confirm this. In late 2012, Bank of America announced that it was preparing to add more restrictions to its work-from-home program, reportedly to increase efficiency. Early this year, Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly ended the company's "results only work environment" (ROWE) program that judged corporate employees only on (gasp!) performance, and not where or how long they worked. And, of course, Marissa Mayer eliminated telecommuting at Yahoo! (Why have we only heard about that one? Because women CEOs are held to higher standards, that's why.)

Why are workplace flexibility programs so hard to sustain? The business case for such programs' benefits is well-known. The elimination of ROWE is particularly striking because the path-breaking work of Erin Kelly, Phyllis Moen and their colleagues has produced rigorous regressions that ROWE reduced turnover and turnover intentions, reduced employees' interruptions at work, reduced time employees' engaged in work of little value to the company, and increased employee's sense of job involvement, using rigorous social science methodology.