How conforming to ideology gets money-laundered into expressing personal preference

You can bet this is going into my next talk! Don’t know what #workmode is, but I spotted this windows near the University of Amsterdam.

A friend recently asked me how much things like our embrace of overwork and the M-curve in women’s employment (the phenomenon of women dropping out of the workforce after having their first child, and reentering after the youngest is in school) reflects personal preference, versus structural limitations.

I want to play around with the idea that maybe it’s all structure, all the way down: that even what we think of as personal preference is just money-laundering of ideology to make us feel like we have more control over our lives.

Why am I thinking about it this way? I just read a Harvard Business Review piece by Alison Wynn and Aliya Hamid Rao about the use of (or non-use) of flexible work programs at management consulting firms.

Management consulting firms offer some of the best workplace flexibility policies, including benefits like paid leaves and sabbaticals. Most employees, however, don’t take advantage of them. This seems like a missed opportunity, especially since management consultants continue to experience extremely high levels of work-life conflict, leading to problems such as low satisfaction and high turnover.

They interviewed people at these firms, and found that some of this was about avoiding flexibility stigma– the informal penalties that come from using flex work or part-time programs– but management consultants “also avoided flexibility policies in order to maintain a sense of personal control: they preferred the freedom to manage their work-life balance as they saw fit, rather than opting into a company policy.”

The problem is that this perception of greater control didn’t seem to alleviate their work-life conflicts. Our interviewees told us about many family sacrifices, health problems, and suffering relationships due to their busy work schedules. When asked why they didn’t try the flexibility benefits available to them, they dismissed them as unusable.

In other words, they weren’t any more successful at crafting their own policies, but they felt that because work-life balance is a personal thing, and that problem-solving is What Consultants Do, that they should be able to do this, and that their own bespoke solution would be better than the company policy.

As  Vivia Chen comments in The American Lawyer, “What malarkey that they think they’re in control.” I see academics doing something similar. They have a lot of freedom (in theory) to schedule their working lives as they wish, but there’s also enormous pressure to conform to a professional idea of being a high-performing, constantly-publishing thought machine; and so academics end up internalizing this pressure, and converting it into a choice they make, rather than something  that’s imposed on them.

This seems crazy to me, too, and I hope that my next book helps push the needle from “work-life balance is a personal thing for which we are are individually responsible” territory, closer to “work-life balance is a structural issue that requires collective action.”

(The longer version of their study is available here.)

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