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

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

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: work-life-balance-balancing-time-or-balancing-identity-by-michelle-ryan-at-tedxexeter


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.


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.


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.


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?

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.

The second implication is about what can be done. If we look at the initiatives and the interventions around work-life balance, most of them concentrate on time. Part-time working, work from home, job share. And I think while all of these initiatives are incredibly important because they give women, and indeed men, the opportunity to balance time in their lives. What these may do is inadvertently exacerbate issues of identity and belonging. If you work from home, if you work part-time, you are less likely to feel that you belong and you are less likely to feel that you can succeed. So such interventions may inadvertently unbalance issues of identity and sacrifice.

So what is a way to do it then? I think we need interventions and initiatives around work-life balance to go well beyond time but focus on identity and belonging. We need to send the message that all types of people that can make it. So that women, people of color, people from working class backgrounds can all imagine themselves in particular roles. That they can imagine succeeding in those roles. And that they can be confident that the sacrifices that they make, and indeed we all make, will be worth in the end.

Thanks very much.



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