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The Long Hours Problem

by Beth on July 31st, 2013

You’ve probably noticed that I’m a huge advocate of workplace flexibility. Giving employees more choices regarding when and where to do their work can really help them to achieve greater work-life balance. But I must say that I don’t think increased flexibility alone will resolve the difficulties that women face in pursuing their careers. The biggest problem has to do with the extremely long hours that many jobs require.

In her HBR blog Joan Williams revealed that only 9% of working mothers work more than 50 hours a week. Compare that number to the 29% of working fathers who work more than 50 hours a week. This is one of the main reasons women hold so few leadership positions; they aren’t willing to work so many hours. Working over 50 hours a week leaves very little time to see your children awake. And the fact is, most mothers (and fathers) actually want to be around for their kids.

When I left my full-time tenured position as a professor in Spain to move to the States I knew I still wanted to teach, but I also knew I wasn’t willing to put in the hours it would take to get tenure again in another university. So I accepted a part-time position at Arizona State University. My children were 5- and 7-years-old and I wanted to spend time with them. I realized how quickly they were growing up and I didn’t want to miss it.

I have to admit in the beginning it hurt my ego to no longer be among the esteemed group of full-time faculty, but in hindsight it was one of the best career moves I’ve ever made. It allowed me to continue teaching and doing research, but without the long hours that a full-time position would have required. It turns out I’m not alone; 60% of working mothers would prefer to work part time.

The “long hours problem” is a cultural problem, originating from traditional masculine organizational cultures where busy, stressed-out people are important, loyal employees are willing to put in long hours, and “real” men don’t need sleep (or to see their kids). Until these cultural norms change, women will continue to reject positions that demand such unreasonably long hours.

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