Work-life Balance: Balancing Time or Balancing Identity? By Michelle Ryan (Transcript)

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Full transcript of Professor Michelle Ryan’s TEDx Talk entitled ‘Work-life Balance: Balancing Time or Balancing Identity?’ at TEDxExeter 2015 conference.

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Michelle Ryan – Professor at University of Exeter

Thank you. It’s absolutely wonderful to be here.

Now, women have made unbelievable strides when it comes to workplace equality. They’re graduating from university at greater rates than men. And they’re seeing incredible success in particular professions and in particular sectors such as education, as GPs (General Practitioners), and in the retail and service industries. But there are still much to be done.

Women continue to be underrepresented in many professions still – in surgery, in science and in the police forces and arm forces as well. And they continue to be underrepresented in particular roles, such as senior and executive management. Indeed, if you search for “CEO” under Google images, the first 80 images that come up are of men. The first woman to appear at number 81 is Barbie.

Now some may argue that this underrepresentation of women is about the choices that women make for themselves. They choose not to go in particular roles or into particular sectors. And often they make these choices because of the hours of dedication and sacrifice required for success in those roles.

What sort of sacrifice do you need to become a surgeon, to become a scientist and those sorts of ideas as well? People argue that women have a greater need than men for work-life balance, and therefore, they are not prepared to be as ambitious or make those sacrifices that are needed. This sort of argument is reflected by comments from women as well.

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A number of years ago, the New York Times magazine published an article called “The Opt-out Revolution”. And they talked about the many many women who are leaving high-powered posts, high powered positions, successful positions, long before they hit the glass ceiling. Because they wanted to spend more time at home with their families. One woman interviewed for the article said this, “I don’t want to conquer the world. I don’t want that kind of life. A baby provides a graceful exit.” I’m not sure how many of you in the audience have had children. I have and graceful is not a word that I would associate with having children.

But at any rate, I think it is incredibly important to look at the decisions that women make and the priorities that they have. But I do worry that if we take such decisions purely at face value, what we might end up ignoring is the continuing existence of societal barriers such as the glass ceiling. I actually think there might be some more complex things going on. We need to look at the circumstances and contexts under which women make these decisions. Why might they be less ambitious? Why may they be less willing to make these sacrifices? Is there something innate about the desire of the work-life balance that women have.

Now, I don’t want to question the priority that some women and indeed, some men place on home, over work. You know this is an incredibly valid and important decision. But what I do want to do is to look at some of the complexities that may be involved in these decisions. What I’d like to do is present some recent cutting-edge research into ambition and into work-life balance that might shed some light on why it is that women might be unwilling to make these sacrifices.

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So one of the first questions that we can ask: Are our women innately less ambitious? We’ve done work with science students, with police officers, and with surgical trainees, that suggests that at the beginning of their careers or at the beginning of their training men and women have absolutely the same levels of ambition. But that for women, this ambition erodes over time. You can see this erosion for science students. By the third year of their undergraduate degree, women are less likely to say that they want to be a scientist or to have a career in science. You can see this erosion for police officers. So that in the third year of their training women express much less ambition to become sergeants.

You can also see this sort of erosion for surgical trainees so that over the course of their training and it’s a really long period of training as well, women show less and less desire to become top surgeons. And indeed, women drop out of surgical training at much higher rates than men. Even though there is no demonstrable evidence that women perform any worse in a surgical training.

So, some people might argue that these figures, this drop in ambition over time for women is because of the biological clock. As the clock starts ticking, suddenly women’s ambitions start to wane. But what’s really interesting about the research that I’ve just talked about is that it pertains to students in their late teens, in early twenties, to police officers in their mid-twenties, and to surgical trainees in their mid-thirties. So what’s consistent here is not a particular time in women’s lives where that biological clock just kicks in. What’s consistent here is systematic exposure to rather male dominated environments. The operating theater, the science laboratory, the police force.

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What we can see, though, is that women’s ambition drops over time as they have an increase in the perceptions that people that have been successful before them are very different from themselves. Male scientists, male surgeons, male police officers. So you can see women’s ambition dropping off as they come to believe that the chance that they will be successful is getting smaller and smaller as they get further and further on.

What we can see then is not some innate difference. But rather, you can imagine asking this question: See that highly prestigious job over there, the one you are unlikely to have? What do you think about it? Do you want it? Now, do you say “Yes, that thing that I can’t have, I definitely want it” Or do you say “that thing that I can’t have, actually, I don’t want it anyway”. Could this be what the women interviewed for the New York Times might be saying?