Explaining the Persistence of Gender Inequality: The Work-Family Narrative as a Social Defense against the 24/7 Work Culture

by Irene Padavic, Robin J. Ely, and Erin M. Reid

Overview — A common explanation for women’s stalled advancement into high-level positions is that women’s family obligations conflict with the long hours of these jobs. Work-family accommodations have done little to help women advance, however. And men also experience work-family conflict yet nevertheless advance. This study argues that women’s advancement is slowed because of social defenses at the organizational level, along with wider cultural beliefs that are resistant to change. These findings concur with scholars’ observations that progress toward gender equality is slowed to the extent that efforts are focused exclusively on women. Expanding efforts to include a thorough-going reconsideration of gender at work and at home, such that both women and men can freely pursue lives in which one domain need not take precedence over the other, may be more effective.

Author Abstract

It is widely accepted that the conflict women experience between family obligations and professional jobs’ long hours lies at the heart of their stalled advancement. Yet research suggests that this “work-family narrative” is partial at best: men, too, experience work-family conflict and nevertheless advance; moreover, mitigating the conflict through flexible work policies has done little to improve women’s advancement prospects and often hurts them. Drawing on an in-depth case study of a professional service firm, we offer two connected explanations for the work-family narrative’s persistence. We first present data suggesting that this belief has become a “hegemonic narrative”—a pervasive, status-quo-preserving story that is uncontested, even in the face of countervailing evidence. We then take a systems psychodynamic perspective to show how organizations use this narrative and attendant policies and practices as an unconscious “social defense” to help employees fend off anxieties raised by a 24/7 work culture. Due to the social defense, two beliefs remain unchallenged—the necessity of long work hours and the inescapability of women’s stalled advancement. The result is that women’s thin representation at senior levels remains in place.

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