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?
So this brings us to the idea of work-life balance then. If we look traditionally at what we think of “work-life balance” we think about the issue of “time”. The time that we spend at work versus the time that we spend at home, with friends, with family or engaging in hobbies. And if we look at the research, we can see that when you ask people about their work-life balance whether they think, we think they have a good work-life balance. Time suddenly does play an issue. But what’s just as important as “time” is how one feels about the workplace.
So consider surgery again, and I know at least one of you from looking at the chalk boards during lunch time has a desire to become a surgeon before they die. I’m not sure who of you it is. But let’s just consider surgeons for a moment. Why is it that less than 10% of surgical consultants in the UK are women? Some may argue that it is those long hours, it is the night shifts. It’s the being called out in the middle of the night for an emergency. And these sort of things are just incompatible with the sort of life that women want, with the work-life balance that they want.
But now consider nursing or midwifery, professions where women are absolutely abundant. Long hours, night shifts, and you don’t get anymore unpredictable hours than midwifery. So we can see that it’s not just about time. It’s also about something else that is going on. So if we ask surgeons and if we ask Navy personnel which is where we’ve done research most recently about their ideas of work-life balance. We can see that perceptions of work-life balance are a little bit about time. But they are also about how people feel about their workplace. Not just the number of hours that they spend there.
Here, for both men and women, feeling that you have a good work-life balance is just as much about, again, feeling that you are similar to those who have been successful before you. You feel like you have a good work-life balance if people like you have made it. This is totally irrespective of the amount of time that you might spend at work.
Now we can explain this relationship in two different ways. The first is that being similar to successful others reinforces your identity. Who you have to be to be successful at work is compatible with who you are at home. In this way, we can see a balance between our identities at home and our identities at work. Being similar to successful others also tells us something about whether we can succeed in the future. And if you feel like you can succeed in the future, you’re willing to make sacrifices, you’re happy to make sacrifices at home, for your career. And it’s not too far a stretch to see that maybe women don’t feel that they are similar to those who have been successful before them.
So this brings us on to the idea of sacrifice then. Who is willing to make sacrifices for their career? One of the biggest differences between men and women at the middle management level is that women are much less likely to say that they will make sacrifices for their career. So it seems that maybe, it’s just quite simple, women just don’t make these sacrifices. But we can see that women say that they’re unwilling to make sacrifices purely because they believe that their sacrifices won’t be rewarded. That if they make sacrifices, they won’t see the benefits for these. So you can then see that it’s not just about an innate difference in men and women and unwillingness to make sacrifices. But rather, what the payoff is for this.
And indeed if you ask middle managers, both men and women, who feels like their sacrifices will be rewarded, it’s those who expect to succeed in the future, it’s those who have clear role models and support networks within their organizations. And those people who feel like organizational success is meritocratic. So if we were to draw all these ideas together, we’ve got evidence that women are less likely to be ambitious. They are more likely to feel that they have a poor work-life balance. And they are less likely to make sacrifices in their careers. But far from being innate, the research suggests that these decisions and these priorities are very much about workplace experiences. And in particular, about issues of identity and belonging.
So this research has a number of implications. I think the first of these is that work-life balance is not just about women. Anyone can feel that they don’t belong. Anyone can feel that their identities at home and at work are incompatible. This could be on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, class, age, disability. So all types of people may feel that they don’t belong. And therefore, if we have the explanation around work-life balance that’s about identity and belonging, we can help explain why all sorts of different people are underrepresented in particular roles. And we can have an explanation that doesn’t rely on the biological clock either.