Time – one of the last barriers to women’s equality at work

The tragic death last September of a female partner of law firm Pinsent Masons  has re-ignited a debate on stress and work/life balance in the professional services sector and beyond.  Vanessa Ford, known professionally as Vanessa Heap, had been working 18-hour days and throughout her holidays to complete the sale of Everton FC to a private equity firm. Her body was found hit by a train and last week the coroner’s verdict was suicide. She was married with two children.

A junior solicitor said a typical work day at Pinsent Masons “is 08:30 to 19:00”, while a senior female solicitor said the work/life balance was “the best thing” about the firm. “I rarely work past 19:30 pm and have never worked a weekend in 5 years there. It’s probably as good as you can get in private practice”, she said.  However, another female senior solicitor said “[I] regularly work until the small hours trying to juggle a family”.

 People who are used to working a normal 9-5 day may be aghast that regularly finishing at 7.30pm is described as positive, but for those working in law firms, particularly in M&A, this long day is standard. And it isn’t just law.

 My PhD research, some of it which found its way into my book Women’s Work Men’s Cultures (Palgrave Macmillan 2011), revealed that long hours were a major factor inhibiting women’s progress in organisations. Not much has changed!  Although since Covid there is much more flexibility in where you can work i.e. home working is now common place, this hasn’t been accompanied by a lowering of workloads.  As one female lawyer puts it “we are also all so much more ‘on’ and available than I had seen previously in my career.” Working into the late hours at home is arguably as damaging to one’s health as working late in an office. Whilst this applies to both men and women the impact on mothers is particularly hard.

Twenty four years ago, a senior manager in a bank challenged the long hours by claiming that 14- hour days amount to sex discrimination.  Investment banker Aisling Sykes, 39, was sacked as vice president for spending too much time with her children, and won her claim for unfair dismissal from US bank, JP Morgan, but lost her claim that 14-hour days amounted to sex discrimination. The tribunal ruled that because she was so highly paid her employers were entitled to ‘make certain demands in respect of hours and place of work.’

The case was important because it was an attempt to use the law to construe a requirement to work long hours as a means of indirect discrimination. However it appeared that the high financial gain exempted the bank from any responsibility to ensure a working environment conducive to working mothers. I don’t believe this case has been overruled although refusing a request for flexibility working may be construed as indirect discrimination.

This ruling revealed the gendered subtext to the apparently neutral phenomenon of long hours, which is still prevalent today. The fault was seen as the woman’s – how can she expect to work those hours with four children? The long-hours culture often goes unchallenged, being justified as it was in the above ruling on the grounds of high salaries or client demand.

At first glance, a long-hours culture might seem to be gender-neutral. There are no innate talents and skills in men that cannot be matched by women – stamina and energy are equally shared out. But it has an indirect effect on women in the workplace in as much as women still take primary responsibility for childcare and household management, and so the burden of working long hours adds to the pressure they already have of managing both family and career. It is difficult to contest or challenge gender in this mode because it is tantamount to challenging the structure of the job itself. But this is what is required if we want to see women and men working together at the top of organizations.

This disparity was made especially clear during lockdown when schools were closed and parents had to home school their kids as well as work. It was women who took on most of this home schooling and their careers suffered for it.

At senior levels, the ability to give time is now the primary differentiating feature between men and women employees. That case twenty four years ago showed how the quid pro quo for high salary, high status jobs is working very long hours. Generally men can give more time to paid work than women, both because they are often exempt from domestic responsibilities, and because their time is often made available by women’s unpaid work. Time is a precious resource which is recognized in the recently coined phrase ‘time poor.’

Men can only spend more time at work if they do less domestic work at home, and as their pay increases so does their exemption from the domestic sphere. My research, like others, showed that as job level and income bracket go up, so did the hours, thereby making that step to the top harder for women with families. Indeed in my research senior women were three times more likely to be childless than men (Women’s Work Men’s Cultures Ch 5)

Arlie Hochschild’s classic study of a US company, The Time Bind, shows clearly how time is used in a competitive way among aspiring managers. A senior executive was quoted as saying:

“Time has a way of sorting people out in this company. A lot of people who don’t make it to the top work long hours. But all the people I know who do make it work long hours. By the time people get to within three or four levels of the Management Committee, they’re all very good, or else they wouldn’t be there. So from that point on what counts is work and commitment.

Senior managers may put in more hours but they also need help to organize their lives and a partner at home is invaluable. Women and men are renegotiating their roles with regard to work and home. Organizations are a part of that. Their employees’ family situation is no longer something that companies can ignore or pretend does not exist. Working mothers will have a real work–life balance when their husbands/partners do half the total housework and childcare and women are paid on a par with men. The best advice to give ambitious women is to choose their partner carefully.

Young women are entering the world of work and have high expectations for their careers and how they share family responsibilities with their partners. Relations between men and women, spouses and partners may have changed a lot over the past twenty years but while workplaces expect excessively long hours – regardless of where they are worked – and men continue to expect women to take on the majority of the ‘other side of life’ it is mostly women who will continue to burn out or drop out.