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2 posts from June 2012

29 June 2012

How do cultural norms impact men and women at work?

Bonjour all,

This week's blog is written by guest writer and PwC Canada alum, Julie Armstrong. I asked Julie to write a blog after we caught up on the phone last month and I peppered her with questions about her research findings on prevailing cultural norms and how they manifest differently in men and women at work. Truly fascinating stuff. Enjoy!


I spent Memorial Day weekend in Washington, D.C., a fitting place for such a holiday (it was hot, making the unofficial start to summer feel quite official).  While wandering through (and cooling off in) the National Portrait Gallery, I stumbled across a small photograph of Maya Lin, the designer of the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial.  For those of you unfamiliar with the history of the memorial, Ms. Lin’s design was selected, “blindly,” from a national competition.  Not only was the abstract, non-traditional nature of her design divisive – as an undergraduate student at Yale (read: young) and an Asian American woman, Ms. Lin herself ignited from some controversy.

Reflecting on Ms. Lin’s photo, I wondered: if the competition hadn’t been blind, would her design have been chosen? 

Washington, D.C., is the policy-making center of the United States – where acts of legislation like the Civil Rights Act and the Equal Pay Act have been passed.  While these groundbreaking acts formally disallow discrimination or bias on the basis of characteristics like race or gender, policy and practice are often two very different things.  Those who watch Mad Men may recall Peggy Olson’s rebuffed attempt at garnering a pay increase, arguing that a recently passed federal law afforded her the right to equal pay for equal work.

While policies certainly represent (and provoke) shifts in public opinion and attitudes, broad cultural change is often slow, full of twists and turns, contradictions and inconsistencies.


Likewise, in work organizations, formal policies are absolutely necessary when endeavouring to create a diverse and inclusive workplace – their impact is tremendous.  However, they are not a panacea.

Workplace culture, imparting what is rewarded, valued and truly important in an organization, is not always concordant with company policy, and it powerfully shapes our experience at work.

This is what my research has focused on: the way workplace cultural norms – informal as they may be – shape the experiences of professionals at work.

How workplace culture shapes professional experience

In 2011, I interviewed professionals, working in a variety of industries in Toronto and New York City.  I set out to understand how workplace culture shaped these professionals’ work experiences, and also to examine whether men and women responded differently to cultural norms at work.

What I found is that all professionals described a prevailing cultural norm, so pervasive and diffuse it spans across organizations and industries, defining what it means to be a success in the workplace.


The "Ideal Worker" Norm

This cultural norm – sometimes referred to as the “ideal worker norm” – defines the successful professional as, above all, being committed and dedicated to their work, willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done and reach the next level (even granting primacy to work obligations over all else in one’s life).

Not only defining what it means to be a success in the workplace, this norm submits professionals to a variety of demands and expectations that, when fulfilled, signal one’s commitment and dedication to work: long hours, a “24/7” work ethic, “face-time” expectations, accommodating a high degree of unpredictability at work, and so on - demands that have been well-documented elsewhere.

My study participants spoke of the ensuing conflict between their work and non-work spheres of life, caused by their work’s intensity.  (Respondents felt that opting to use workplace policies designed to alleviate some of the pressure and tension that erupts between one’s work and home life carried the potential for negative career consequences, bringing one’s commitment and dedication into question.)

At the outset of this study, I suspected I would find two types of responses to the ideal worker norm: professionals who reject it and those who accept it.

My findings revealed a much more nuanced response on behalf of the professionals in the study – almost all outwardly accept the ideal worker norm, practically fulfilling the demands and expectations placed upon them and communicating their commitment to work and pursuit of success.  However, inwardly, my respondents maintain attitudes of ambivalence towards the norm, revealing the contradictory nature of their thoughts, feelings and actions while juggling a fulfilling career and personal life.

Respondents spoke of their misgivings when prioritizing work over other aspects of their lives, they expressed thoughts of uncertainty as to whether they truly aspire to make it to the top (fearing the costs they may incur in their personal lives along the way), and were highly critical of the organizational culture around them.

Gender differences:"letting others down?"

This response to the ideal worker norm was true for both men and women – yet other distinct gender differences also emerged.  Among these differences, women expressed a much greater degree of internal conflict and sense of being “torn.”  Unlike male respondents, they also described emotional consequences in response to the ideal worker norm, speaking of feelings of guilt, anxiety and worries of “letting others down.”

Fascinatingly, women didn’t just express their concerns of not being able to fulfill their role as friend, partner or family-member, but they worried about letting co-workers down – falling short and not meeting the demands and expectations of others at work.

Women’s unique response to the ideal worker norm reveals the broader cultural expectations for women to be other-oriented – to be responsive to the needs of others – not just at home, but also at work, shaping not simply assumptions about the types of jobs for which women are “naturally” well-suited but also how women should perform at work, even in fields long dominated by men.  (I should note that I make no attempt here to settle the debate of whether women actually are more other-oriented then men.)

Interestingly, most of the women respondents did not have children, and as such lacked childcare responsibilities.  And yet, the sheer anticipation of having children in the future was enough to invoke cultural expectations regarding women’s role as child caregivers, shaping women’s current response to workplace cultural norms.  Thus, just as societal cultural norms can underpin those of the workplace, the two can also clash: the emotional consequences of the ideal worker norm illustrate the bind many women find themselves in as they navigate the often conflicting expectations of their personal lives and careers.  


So what does all this mean to us, in the workplaces we go to each day?

These findings demonstrate how profoundly cultural norms, not just formal policies, shape our daily lives – both in work and outside of it.  Due to the often informal and “unspoken” nature of workplace culture, I think we have to be especially conscious and intentional about practicing cultural norms that are consistent with stated policies, values and beliefs.  And, we must also be fastidious about extinguishing the cultural norms that stem our progress towards creating truly diverse organizations.  This might mean stopping yourself right before you get ready to boast of your late night at the office, or not assuming that a colleague on a flexible work arrangement isn’t able to take on a particular assignment, or not allowing the start of a performance review discussion to be led by the number of overtime hours staff have worked.  Doing so isn’t just good for women, but for everyone at work (just think about the changing cultural expectations for men at home, and how this clashes with long held cultural expectations for men at work).

I’m not sure our workplaces will ever be “blind” – and I’m not even sure this is our goal (after all, do we really want to “ignore” our differences, which make for a richer, more meaningful workplace?).  But as each of us do our part driving the cultural change that supports the policies we already champion – day by day, interaction by interaction – we will push ourselves further down the path we’re already on: creating workplaces where the best ideas and people flourish.

Workplaces where a Maya Lin design would win. 

11 June 2012

Don't miss this!


Colleagues, friends, and many of you, readers, send me pertinent articles on gender and diversity when they come across your desks.

Thanks for that - it ensures that I always have plenty of content to ponder.

Reading_PwC Brand Photo

I wanted to share these two must reads of the quarter in case you missed them. They're both brief and fascinating.

The first is an update on seminal McKinsey and Catalyst research, which provides further empirical evidence that gender diverse management creates a significant financial return.

The second looks at how personal lives might affect attitudes at work. This recent Harvard Business Review blog asked the provocative question: Are Women Held Back by Colleagues' Wives? Drawing from a recently published academic study, the author suggests that the marital status of managers could significantly impact their attitudes and management style.

Happy reading until next time...