Male Executives Don’t Feel Guilt, See Work-Life Balance as a Women's Problem

What Women Really Think
March 5 2014 11:00 AM

Male Executives Don’t Feel Guilt, See Work-Life Balance as a Women's Problem

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Don't worry. My wife's taking care of it.

Photo by bikeriderlondon/Shutterstock

A revealing—and depressing—article in this month’s Harvard Business Review shows that no matter how much power female executives have accrued, or how much lip service male executives might publicly pay, family issues are still seen as a female problem.

Harvard Business School professor Boris Groysberg and research associate Robin Abrahams looked at interviews of nearly 4,000 C-suite executives conducted by HBS students from 2008-2013. Forty-four percent of the interviewees were female. And while the men and women often had the same job titles, the similarities stopped there.

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The first difference between male and female execs is in the way they frame work-life conflicts. The men tend to choose work without regret when conflicts arise, because they frame their family role as “breadwinner.” This seems to alleviate any guilt. One interviewee says he doesn’t regret his divorce because he was always a good provider and was able to achieve his goals, and now he spends more time with his kids on weekends. Another says:

“The 10 minutes I give my kids at night is one million times greater than spending that 10 minutes at work.”

As the authors point out, most women would not brag about only spending 10 minutes a day with their children. Contrast this with how a female executive frames her experience: “When you are paid well, you can get all the [practical] help you need. What is the most difficult thing, though—what I see my women friends leave their careers for—is the real emotional guilt of not spending enough time with their children. The guilt of missing out.”

That women are paying for the practical help—while male executives tend to receive practical help from a stay-at-home spouse—might explain the guilt differential. Per the article, “Fully 88% of the men are married, compared with 70% of the women. And 60% of the men have spouses who don’t work full-time outside the home, compared with only 10% of the women. The men have an average of 2.22 children; the women, 1.67.”

Women interviewed were more likely to say that they avoided marriage and children entirely because they don’t want to deal with the potential conflict. “Because I’m not a mother, I haven’t experienced the major driver of inequality: having children,” one woman said. “People assume that if you don’t have kids, then you either can’t have kids or else you’re a hard-driving bitch. So I haven’t had any negative career repercussions, but I’ve probably been judged personally.”

The most disheartening thing about the survey results is that executives—both male and female—continue to see the tension between work and family as a women’s problem. Male executives admit they don’t prioritize their families enough, and they don’t seem too bothered by it. They praise their spouses for taking over the homefront entirely, while female executives praise their spouses for not interfering with their careers.

As Rebecca Traister recently pointed out in the New Republic, when we’re trying to solve the problem of not enough women in the upper echelons of business, tech, and politics, we always direct these conversations at women themselves. Lean in, we tell them! Marry a man who will stay at home! But the problem here isn’t women’s lack of ambition or, necessarily, their lack of support at home. The issue is that we need to get men to acknowledge work-life conflicts as an everyone issue, not a women’s issue or a mom issue.

But Traister is more optimistic than I am. She says that to get work-life balance issues on everyone’s radar, women need to “send aggressive messages about what’s wrong not just to each other, but to the dudes.” The problem, as outlined in the HBR piece, is that male executives—and here, we are talking about a very small percentage of super high-achieving men who run things, not men as a whole—don’t seem to care about being at home more. I don’t see how aggressively worded messages will change that. If there’s someone who will work insane hours, why would you give a promotion to someone who can’t or doesn’t want to? Indeed, even as stay-at-home dads with executive wives have gotten more ink lately, among two-parent households where women work, the number of stay-at-home dudes has slightly declined since the early ’90s.

So where does that leave us? The one silver lining of the article is that the HBS students who interviewed the executives were dismayed by the findings. Both male and female students resisted the notion that you can’t be an executive and also lead a balanced life. What remains to be seen is whether they’ll do anything to change it decades from now when they’re the ones in power.

Jessica Grose is a frequent Slate contributor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad. Follow her on Twitter.

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