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The Machismo of Extreme Work

Vivia Chen

June 18, 2013

©-ysbrandcosijn---Fotolia.comAn annoying little fact that might explain (at least in part) the gender gap: Men logged far more hours than women at work. Joan Williams, a professor at Hastings College of Law, writes in the Harvard Business Review blog:

How many employed American mothers work more than 50 hours a week? Go on, guess. I've been asking lots of people that question lately. Most guess around 50 percent.

The truth is 9 percent.

In contrast, fathers who work more than 50 hours a week stand at 29 percent. (For parents with at least a college degree, 37 percent of fathers versus 14 percent mothers worked 50 hours or more per week.) This gap in hours "is a key reason why the percentage of women in top jobs has stalled at about 14 percent, a number that has barely budged in the past decade," writes Williams.

Why the sizable gap? Williams suggests that the American workplace—particularly in the elite circles of law or finance—equates working long hours at the office with virtue and masculinity. The other side of the coin is that work arrangements that offer more flexibility and controlled hours—the type of arrangement that women and an increasing number of men want—are disparaged.

In fact, working insanely long hours (and broadcasting them) have now become elite, macho status symbols. "Not only is work devotion a 'class act'—a way of enacting class status—it's also a certain way of being a 'real' man," writes Williams.

Just 50 years ago, elitism was defined very differently, says Williams: "Americans signaled class by displaying their leisure: think bankers' hours (9 to 3)." Well, so much for the good old days!

How do women fit in this current scheme? They don't. Women want to work; they just don't want to work insanely. What women also want/need is some control over their work—namely, in the form of flexibility. 

But even flexibility—a hard-earned option—is increasingly under attack. Despite the research that supports the business benefits of flexibility (increased efficiency, lower turnover, better morale, etc.), there's been a backlash recently. Yahoo! Inc.'s elimination of off-site work is, of course, the most notable example.

If it's any comfort, flexibility is one area where firms tend to be somewhat progressive. I don't think most firms care where or how you bill these days—just as long as you get it done. That said, big law firms glorify those with the most billables.

So where does this leave us? I'm afraid nowhere. Williams suggests that the value placed on the masculine model of working is entrenched in our belief system:

If institutions are serious about advancing women, they'll have to address the hours problem—that's the only way to get a critical mass of women poised for leadership. But we'll never address the hours problem until we open up a conversation about what drives it.

It's not productivity. It's not innovation. It's identity.

Ah, that elusive thing, identity. I don't know about you, but I'm not holding my breath that change is coming anytime soon. (Let me just say that I'm not sure Williams is that flexible on the identity issue either. She basically says that women can't or won't put in the grueling hours that men do: "We can't expect progress when the fast track that leads to top jobs requires a time commitment that excludes most mothers—and by extension, most women.")

In the meantime, let me ask you this: Do you believe Big Law will ever become saner? Is it the male work culture that dictates the hours—or is the job just inherently crazy?

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The job is indeed crazy. However, unecessary face time requirements remain in too many firms. Also, being in the client service business is tough. Whoever pays the piper chooses the tune and a lot of clients demand instant responsiveness.

It's funny how we accept that physicians have limits to their schedules, but we have trained lawyers to make their clients think that they're available 24/7.

Great post with lots to think about here. My answers to your questions (In the meantime, let me ask you this: Do you believe Big Law will ever become saner? Is it the male work culture that dictates the hours—or is the job just inherently crazy?) are "no" and "no." I've posted more about this on my blog. Would be grateful for any feedback there (http://right-brain-law.blogspot.com/2013/06/are-men-to-blame-for-biglaw.html) or on Twitter. (@rightbrainlaw).

I think the point is mostly missed in the comments (except by Liz) that women are still expected to deal with the childcare, housework, etc - in addition to their career (in law, medicine, or whatever). The problem is not that women are slackers and men are freaking awesome because they "earn their keep," but that men STILL expect women to primarily attend to household issues.

How about - women are only paid 70 cents to a man's dollar and so they smartly say to themselves, "Why should I work so hard when I am not getting paid for it?"

I spent 17 years at BigLaw, ten as a partner. After sitting in innumerable associate review sessions, I can attest that the macho, long-hours work ethic is highly valued. Of course, there are ways to give the impression of embracing this culture without actually doing so. Here's a link to my article from ForbesWoman "How to Beat the 'Old Boys' at their Game." http://womensrightswriter.com/articles/how-to-beat-the-old-boys-at-their-own-game/

i have to admit ... i don't entirely understand this blog. i am female, ivy league law grad and have been in practice since the 1980s. i started in biglaw, decided the environment (not necessarily the hours) did not suit my personality, and moved about until i found what was right for me. my classmates, female as well as male, have become partners at large and small law firms, taken teaching positions, etc. .. as they felt suited them. i don't think it is a male or female issue. moreover, because most firms make money on the billable hour, i can't fault that requirement, if the market (supply and demand) will support that. i have to say that this blog raises issues of gender inequality that did not exist in the 1980s. i find that more surprising than anything else.

Change is coming in the form of the increasing number of clients who demand a "flat rate" billing, rather than billable hours. This, by definition, will reward the most efficient.

Big law is what it is. Hours will always be important, as will a person's ability to directly generate billings.

If one were to look at the medical system, and internship/residency, the hours look pretty horrible. But would you want a doctor who experienced 500 cases, or the doctor who experienced 2000 cases?

Is there a cultural, pscyhological, or even evolutionary component to work that induces men to work ridiculous hours? Yes. Men do lots of crazy, macho things (jump off boathouses, car surf, fight etc.). Does it disadvantage women? Of course - although I have never known a woman to leave unfinished work behind. Where it gets ethically sticky is when we ask who pays for the 3000th hour some guy has billed? Do you want a burnout handling your sentencing appeal? Most industries prohibit excessive working hours - truck drivers, airline pilots, etc. Why doesn't law? The administration of justice is certainly an area in which the public needs protection from overly tired practioners.

I think this hits the nail on the head. The problem in BigLaw (I am a refugee) is the sole focus on billable hours. Not only women, but also men who want to have a life, who draw the line at working more than 50 hours a week are out. That is not good for the profession or for clients. I have long believed that clients are not getting good service when lawyers are allegedly working for them at midnight. (Excluding trials of course which are by definition limited in duration.) It would benefit all of us if the billable hour as the sole measure of worth was discarded.

well, let's see if you're gonna "approve" this: although you tried to conceal it, your basic point is that since women seem to be unable and/or unwilling to meet the same requirement (and a logical one a that, since more hours at work equals more billables, more money and therefore more value to the firm) as men (you and Mrs. Willams choose to refer only to mothers and fathers, I know some feminists who would object to that very strongly), let's just alter the rules or lower the requirement, so that everyone (i.e women) will have their "fair share". I'm not gonna post my opinion regarding, since you certainly would not "approve" of it. But at least have the honesty to admit that what you want is some kind of affirmative action or quota for mothers/women. Or just move over to Europe where they're already trying to implement "women's quotas".

It's hard to see how firms can become saner until they give up their central insanity: measuring contributions by time spent instead of quality. And because women still handle more housework and child care than men in general, it's not (always) the case that they are putting in fewer hours; they're just getting paid for fewer of them.

Maybe working mothers (or anyone else with more things they want to do with their time than bill hours) are better at working efficiently than men. That's one of the problems with BigLaw. No matter what anyone says, the only thing with value there is your hours. I do not believe that all those guys racking up huge hours are working efficiently and productively and really need to be working those hours (some probably are, and do). S instead of praising people who get the work done efficiently, BigLaw punishes them.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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