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What Holds Women Back?

Updated: Jul 5, 2020

One particularly strong push factor that women encounter is work/family accommodations. Going part-time or shifting to internally facing roles provides an enticing off-ramp from the path of overwork, but those moves stigmatize women and derail their careers. Female associates at the firm who took accommodations generally fell off the track to partner; female partners who took them veered away from the route to real power.

Many women at the firm described having to resist a second push factor: the pressure to give up what they saw as their relational style in favor of the hard-charging “masculine” style the firm venerated in client interactions. One female partner told us how an early mentor warned that relying on her well-honed relationship-building skills would communicate to prospective clients that “you don’t have a lot going on between your ears.” In other words, her skill set didn’t cut the mustard. Such assessments loosened women’s identification with work while affirming a style more commonly associated with men, further encouraging women to step back.

A third push factor was the poor reputation of female partners with children, whose mothering was roundly condemned. These were formidable women who had held fast to their professional identities and achieved much recognition and success—achievements contradicting the idea that it is impossible to meet the demands of both work and family. One could imagine their being held up as exemplars, but we heard them routinely described as bad mothers—“horrible” women who were not “positive role models of working moms.” For junior women facing decisions about being good mothers and having successful careers, such condemnation implies that professional commitment exacts a terrible cost.

With these push factors constantly reminding women that they don’t really belong in the workplace, it’s no wonder that women are often ambivalent about their career commitments. When faced with the long-hours problem, they find themselves on the horns of a dilemma: If they respond to the pull of family by taking accommodations, they undermine their status at work, but if they refuse accommodations in favor of their professional ambitions, they undermine their status as good mothers. Thus they are positioned to be seen as subpar performers or subpar mothers—or both. This dilemma leaves the culture of overwork intact, allows firms to deflect responsibility for women’s stalled advancement, and locks gender inequality in place. Women are the ones who have a work/family problem to sort out, the story goes, and that’s just the way it is.

Social defense systems are insidious. They divert attention from a core anxiety-provoking problem by introducing a less-anxiety-provoking one that can serve as a substitute focus. At our client firm, the core problem was the impossibly long work hours, and the substitute problem was the firm’s inability to promote women. By presenting work/family accommodations as the solution to the substitute problem, the firm added to an invisible and self-reinforcing social-defense system—one that cloaked inefficient work practices in the rhetoric of necessity while perpetuating gender disparities. This move gave firm leaders an unresolvable and therefore always available problem to worry about, which in turn allowed everybody to avoid confronting the core problem. As a result, two strongly held ideologies supporting the status quo remained in place: Long work hours are necessary, and women’s stalled advancement is inevitable.

Our findings align with a growing consensus among gender scholars: What holds women back at work is not some unique challenge of balancing the demands of work and family but rather a general problem of overwork that prevails in contemporary corporate culture.

Women and men alike suffer as a result. But women pay higher professional costs. If we want to solve this problem, we must reconsider what we’re willing to allow the workplace to demand of all employees. Such a reconsideration is possible. As individual families and employees push back against overwork, they will pave the way for others to follow. And as more research shows the business advantage of reasonable hours, some employers will come to question the wisdom of grueling schedules. If and when those forces gain traction, neither women nor men will feel the need to sacrifice the home or the work domain, demand for change will swell, and women may begin to achieve workplace equality with men.


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