What’s Really Holding Women Back?

By Robin J. Ely and Irene Padavic
August 28, 2020

As scholars of gender inequality in the workplace, we are routinely asked by companies to investigate why they are having trouble retaining women and promoting them to senior ranks. It’s a pervasive problem. Ask people why, and you will hear from the vast majority a lament that goes something like this: High-level jobs require long hours, women’s devotion to family makes it impossible for them to put in those hours, and their careers suffer as a result.

We call this explanation the work/family narrative. Believing this explanation doesn’t mean it’s true, however, and our research calls it into question.

A few years ago, a global consulting firm sought our help in understanding how its culture might be hampering its women employees. Like most other professional services firms, it has few female partners. We worked with the firm for 18 months, during which time we interviewed 107 consultants — women and men, partners and associates. Virtually everybody resorted to some version of the work/family narrative to explain the paucity of female partners.

But as we reported last year with our colleague Erin Reid, the more time we spent with people at the firm, the more we found that their explanations didn’t correspond with the data. Women weren’t held back because of trouble balancing the competing demands of work and family — men, too, suffered from the balance problem and nevertheless advanced. Women were held back because, unlike men, they were encouraged to take accommodations, such as going part-time, which derailed their careers. The real culprit was a general culture of overwork that hurt both men and women and locked gender inequality in place.


On several dimensions, the firm’s data revealed a reality very different from the story employees told us.

Consider retention. Although the firm wanted help addressing “women’s higher turnover rate,” when we took a careful look at its data for the preceding three years, we discovered virtually no difference in turnover rates for women and men. Another disconnect: Whereas firm members attributed distress over work/family conflict primarily to women, we found that many men were suffering, too.

Accommodations were another area in which the firm’s narrative and its data didn’t line up. Employees who took advantage of them — virtually all of whom were women — were stigmatized and saw their careers derailed. The upshot for women at the individual level was sacrifices in power, status and income; at the collective level, it meant the continuation of a pattern in which powerful positions remained the purview of men.

In a final disconnect, many of those we spoke with described experiences that called into question the work/family narrative’s foundational premise: that 24/7 work schedules are unavoidable. They talked about devoting long hours to practices that were costly and unnecessary, chief among them overselling and overdelivering. Associates felt pressured to go along with these demands for overwork because they wanted to stand out as stars amid their colleagues.

What really held women back was this culture of overwork at the firm. The unnecessarily long hours were detrimental to everyone, but they disproportionately penalized women because, unlike men, many of them take accommodations, which exact a steep career price. All this led us to what we felt was an inescapable conclusion: For the firm to address its gender problem, it would have to address its long-hours problem.


In a long-hours work culture, men have one primary identity: that of an ideal worker, fully committed and fully available. To fit this image, they must adopt the psychological stance of “my job is all-important.” Nonwork identities, no matter how personally meaningful, become contingent and secondary. Naturally, this imperative to be an ideal worker generates internal conflict.

The men we talked to clearly felt guilty about how little time they spent with their families. They told us how much they regretted the time spent away from them. Men employed one key psychological tactic to manage these emotions: They split off their guilt and sadness, projected those feelings onto women at the firm, and identified with them there, at a bit of a remove.

Consider how one man explained women’s lack of advancement in the firm. “I believe deeply in my heart and soul that women encounter different challenges,” he said. It is women, not men, he suggested, who have the parenting experience. Men and women, he said, just have different commitments to work and family.

This man was not alone in setting up women as the organizational bearers of distress about curtailed family time. That psychological defense gave many men at the firm the illusion of a fulfilled life and enabled them to perform as the committed workers the firm valorized.


Women experience a different psychic tension. According to the work/family narrative and broader cultural notions, their commitment to family is primary by nature, so their commitment to work has to be secondary. But a family-first stance comes at a significant cost to their careers.

Most of the firm’s women had tasted professional success and resisted the idea that they belonged at home, which made this tension especially acute. They willingly complied with the family-devotion schema but struggled openly with the idea of splitting off the work component of their identities.

That ambivalence is clear in the account of one mother, who talked about her inability to shirk responsibilities on the home front despite having a family-oriented husband. “I feel my male counterparts can more easily disconnect from what’s happening at home. … If I did sort of disconnect, things wouldn’t fall apart, but I wouldn’t feel good about it, so it’s just not going to happen.” Yet her work commitment was also strong, leaving her at a loss for knowing whether her family responsibilities would allow her the space to develop professionally.

Working women in this situation constantly assess whether they should ratchet down their career aspirations. Going part-time or shifting 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.

If women 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. This dilemma leaves the culture of overwork intact and allows firms to deflect responsibility for women’s stalled advancement. Women are the ones who have a work/family problem to sort out, the story goes, and that’s just the way it is.




To explain why women are still having trouble accessing positions of power and authority in the workplace, many observers point to the challenge of managing the competing demands of work and family. But the data doesn’t support that narrative.


The authors conducted a long-term study of beliefs and practices at a global consulting firm. The problem, they found, was not the work/family challenge itself but a general culture of overwork in which women were encouraged to take career-derailing accommodations to meet the demands of work and family.


This culture of overwork punishes not just women but also men, although to a lesser degree. Only by recognizing and addressing the problem as one that affects all employees will we have a chance of achieving workplace equality.

Robin J. Ely is the Diane Doerge Wilson professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and the faculty chair of the HBS Gender Initiative. Irene Padavic is the Mildred and Claude Pepper distinguished professor of sociology at Florida State University.

From Harvard Business Review, c.2020 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.

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