How Some Men “Pass” as 80-Hour-a-Week “Ideal Workers”

This article originally appeared on BU Research. Photo by Cydney Scott

Erin Reid, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, recalls the response she got from other academics when she mentioned her interest in men’s experiences in the workplace years ago.

“They’d say, ‘Men don’t have gender issues in the workplace—why would you want to study men?’” Reid says.

Given the initial skepticism about her subject, Reid has been stunned by the response to her new Organization Science study, which examines a high-powered consulting firm and how men as well as women navigated demands that so-called “ideal workers” log 80-hour weeks, travel “at the drop of a hat,” and put their clients above everything else, including their families. Whatever their widely varying responses to what Reid learned about high-powered men and work, people were definitely interested.

The New York Times featured her study in a May 2015 story in the online column The Upshot. The headline: “How Some Men Fake an 80-Hour Workweek, and Why It Matters.”

As Reid explains in her study, these men were getting by with 50- and 60-hour weeks, focusing on local clients in order to greatly reduce their business travel, and making time for their families. The trick—one most women at the firm seemed to be uncomfortable with—was that they were doing it under the radar. Drawing on the late sociologist Erving Goffman’s concepts of “passing” and “revealing” as ways to explain how people manage discredited social identities, Reid writes that these men were “passing” as the firm’s prized Supermen, or slavishly devoted “ideal workers.” Not only that, but they were getting the job done and being rewarded with rave reviews and promotions, just like those who really did work 80-hour weeks.

Another group of men—and most of the women—were transparent about wanting time for their families. While the firm accommodated them with part-time schedules (and less pay) and infrequent business trips, these workers, regardless of gender, were marginalized. They didn’t get the rewards—the stellar reviews, promotions, and big bonuses—that went to the 80-hour-a-week “ideal workers.”

Maybe the real problem “isn’t men faking greater devotion to their jobs,” Upshot columnist Neil Irwin writes, “but that too many companies reward the wrong things, favoring the illusion of extraordinary effort over actual productivity.” The column, and its analysis of Reid’s study, struck a chord. Within a matter of days, more than 540 reader comments had been posted.

MR from California wrote: “Having worked at a consulting firm, I can say that this study is dead on. And the upshot is that they are charging clients for these ‘hours.’”

Eric H. from London: “This is something that every single one of my friends in finance… acknowledges explicitly. It works because, for quite a few of them, productivity is one means to a personal end of feeling better and more competitive than those around them.”

Sammy from Denver wondered aloud: “I’d be interested in whether females do the same thing.”

To which X responded: “I am a female partner at a law firm, and I live this experience…If I have a ‘meeting,’ whether it is with a client, my dentist, my child’s teacher, or a school concert, I have learned the hard way (from second-guessing partners pushing their agenda) just to say, ‘I have a meeting at that time, can we reschedule for such-and-such time.’ My male colleagues do exactly the same thing.”

At the end of April 2015, Harvard Business Review published an article by Reid about her study. While some men “seemed to happily comply with the firm’s expectations…a majority were dissatisfied,” she writes. “They complained to me of children crying when they missed their soccer games, of poor health and substance addictions caused by how they worked, and of a general sense of feeling ‘overworked and underfamilied.’”

Salon.com highlighted Reid’s research with this headline: “New study reveals just how jaw-droppingly sexist the American workplace still is.” BloombergBusiness opined that Reid’s study had “outed a group of people, mostly men, who play the part of the workaholic, feigning brutal hours, while covertly keeping a more humane schedule.”

For her study, Reid interviewed 82 consultants in the American offices of an elite global strategy consulting firm with a strong US presence as well as 13 other people associated with the firm. In keeping with the percentages of male and female consultants at the firm (which were comparable to those of similar companies), 64 of the consultants Reid interviewed were men, and 18 were women. The consultants held undergraduate or advanced degrees from highly selective schools like Williams, Harvard, and Stanford. Reid was given access to performance reviews and internal human resources records.

BU Research sat down with Reid in her office at the Questrom School of Business in May 2015 to talk about the response to her research, how she had become interested in men and the workplace, how she had come to study the consulting firm, and what she had learned from her research.

Check out the Q&A here.

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