Explaining the Persistence of Gender Inequality: The Work–family Narrative as a Social Defense against the 24/7 Work Culture

Source: Irene Padavic, Robin J. Ely, Erin M. Reid, Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 65 no. 1, March 2020
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From the abstract:
It is widely accepted that the conflict between women’s family obligations and professional jobs’ long hours lies at the heart of their stalled advancement. Yet research suggests that this “work–family narrative” is incomplete: men also experience it and nevertheless advance; moreover, organizations’ effort to mitigate it through flexible work policies has not improved women’s advancement prospects and often hurts them. Hence this presumed remedy has the perverse effect of perpetuating the problem. Drawing on a case study of a professional service firm, we develop a multilevel theory to explain why organizations are caught in this conundrum. We present data suggesting that the work–family explanation has become a “hegemonic narrative”—a pervasive, status-quo-preserving story that prevails despite countervailing evidence. We then advance systems-psychodynamic theory to show how organizations use this narrative and attendant policies and practices as an unconscious “social defense” to help employees fend off anxieties raised by a 24/7 work culture and to protect organizationally powerful groups—in our case, men and the firm’s leaders—and in so doing, sustain workplace inequality. Due to the social defense, two orthodoxies remain unchallenged—the necessity of long work hours and the inescapability of women’s stalled advancement. The result is that women’s thin representation at senior levels remains in place. We conclude by highlighting contributions to work–family, workplace inequality, and systems-psychodynamic theory.