How Some Men in Business “Pass” as Ideal Workers
They get the job done, and spend time with their families under the radar—and are rewarded
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.
BU Research: Why do you think your study has struck such a chord?
Reid: A lot of people feel like they have to work all the time or that they are expected to work all the time. And yet at the same time, we all talk about the need for work/family/life balance. There’s a problem with this culture of overwork. It’s not always necessary for performance. It’s not just mothers who have trouble with this culture. It’s fathers, too, and people who don’t have children.
You earned your PhD in sociology from Harvard University, studying at both their business school and department of sociology. How did you get interested in men and the workplace?
In graduate school, I was interested in gender inequality. Why are there fewer women in position of power? Gradually I realized that there was all this research on women and the workplace, but there was almost nothing about men’s experiences. We say that a lot of the reasons women don’t get ahead is that they don’t have stay-at-home husbands. But most men don’t have stay-at-home wives, either. Something like 70 percent of American married couples are dual earners. I thought about the men I knew who didn’t have stay-at-home wives. They cared about their kids, too. I came to believe that if you want to understand gender, you have to understand men as well as women.
How did you come to study this consulting firm?
This particular company decided they had a gender problem. They thought they weren’t retaining women at the same rate as men. That’s not unusual with these consulting firms. The company approached my dissertation advisor at the Harvard Business School and asked if she would be interested in coming in and looking at what was going on with women at the firm. She said she had a PhD student who was interested in studying men. They said, ‘We care about men, too.’ So they invited me in.
Were you surprised by what you discovered about how men and women handled the demands of the firm?
Yes, I didn’t go in there thinking that men were going to be passing. I wasn’t surprised to find that men had trouble with the firm’s demands. There were men who described themselves to me as Superman. They were proud of it. That was the culture.
There were some women like that, too. One woman said to me, ‘I’m so tired of talking about work/life balance. I love to work.’ She was in her late 20s. She worked from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. She was super happy. But she did tell me that she was getting married the next summer and that she expected things would change for her after that.
A lot of what you describe sounds awful. Why did people put up with it? Was it all about the money?
People come out of business school with big loans. They go into investment banking and consulting. People talk about escaping from banking to consulting. Some people talked about the status. Some really loved their clients. They found their projects meaningful. But one man told me he felt like he was an agent of the Seven Deadly Sins. He was a partner. He said, ‘I sell beer to people in South America. I make women feel ugly so they’ll buy more makeup.’ He was looking for another job.
Were there gender differences in how men and women felt about their jobs?
About half the men were happy to be “ideal workers,” and about half the women were. What was really different was how they coped. Women involved the firm. They asked to work less hours. The firm would tell them, ‘When you have kids, we’ll make accommodations for you.’ So women just took them at their word. Women did what they were supposed to do and they made less money and got fewer promotions. Men who did that also faced a stigma and got off the promotion track.
What about the senior manager who told you he was managing his work so he could ski five days a week when the opportunity arose and still be there for his son, and his clients?
He thought the firm was sort of cultish. He didn’t fit, but he made it work. He said, ‘I can kind of do what I want.’ He did his job well. Clients liked him. We have this myth that you need to be chained to your desk to succeed. He would have been fired if he’d formalized what he was doing.
In your study, you write about how the firm enforced its expectations for total commitment and availability to clients through things like performance reviews.
In performance reviews, the firm made it clear over and over that what they valued was commitment and availability. One guy told me about this stretch where every night they were meeting at the firm from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. He told me about a guy who was supposed to come in the next morning by 8 a.m. He was half an hour late. He got a poor evaluation.
People at the firm seemed to really want to talk to you.
I felt like a therapist. People would say, ‘I’m so glad you’re talking about this.’ They genuinely cared about all these issues.
What were your recommendations to the firm?
They wanted to retain women. We told them, ‘Men have the same problems as women. Men are complaining about work/life conflicts at the same rate as women.’ We said, ‘Maybe you don’t have a gender problem, maybe you have a work problem.’
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