June 17, 2013 Practice Points

Long Hours Stall Career Advancement for Women

By Suzanne L. Jones

According to data taken from the U.S. Census Bureau, only nine percent of employed American mothers work more than 50 hours a week during the key years of career advancement––ages 25 to 44. When limited to mothers with a college degree, the data barely improves at 13.9 percent. In real time, working more than 50 hours a week generally means leaving home around 8:30 a.m. and returning at 8:30 p.m. five days a week, assuming an average commute. These hours are unattractive as most mothers want to see their children awake.

Joan Williams, distinguished professor of law and founding director of the Center of WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, recently analyzed the “long hours problem” as a reason why women are not advancing in the workplace. Williams observed that the expectation of logging long hours to achieve career advancement is a key reason why the percentage of women in top jobs has stalled around 14 percent over the past decade. There can be little progress when the path leading to top jobs requires a time commitment that excludes most mothers and, as a result, most women.

Despite the need to address this problem, the future of work-life balance appears grim. Recently, companies have cut back on workplace flexibility programs. In 2012, Bank of America restricted its work-from-home program to increase efficiency. Earlier this year, Best Buy ended the company’s “results only work environment” program that evaluated employees on performance only, and not where or how many hours they worked. At Yahoo!, Marissa Mayer eliminated telecommuting.

According to Williams, “manliness and morality” are to blame for the difficulty in sustaining workplace flexibility programs. Upper-middle class men place importance on ambition and strong work ethic. As a result, they believe that high-level professionals should “demonstrate commitment by making work the central focus of their lives” and “manifest singular ‘devotion to work,’ unencumbered with family responsibilities.” Characterizing “work devotion” as a marriage between moral purity and elite status, Williams notes that the elite signal their importance by saying “I am slammed.” In other words, “the working rich” display their extreme schedules to establish their class status.

Working long hours is also seen as a manly, heroic activity. Marianne Cooper undertook a study of engineers in Silicon Valley to observe how working long hours is a “manly test of physical endurance.” Cooper concluded that the successful enactment of masculinity was displaying one’s “exhaustion, physically and verbally, in order to convey the depth of one's commitment, stamina, and virility.”

Employers concerned about advancing women in the workplace need to address the underlying problem of long hours. Unless and until there is a change in the expectation that logging long hours is necessary to succeed, the percentage of women in top jobs will remain stagnant.

Keywords: woman advocate, litigation, advancement, careers


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