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Women entrepreneurs: not a happy picture

August 1, 2010

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz,

-- "I just have such a respect for my business that I don't intermingle it in with my life."
-- "The week is the work week for me...[and the weekends] still feel like weekends, even though I may be working."
-- "It is a concerted effort to not work on the weekend. We need to make a concerted effort to take this weekend off because we need to be fresher."
Women entrepreneurs are the source of these quotes, and all were said in a positive spirit. But to interpret them as implying that these women have managed to strike a satisfactory balance between work and non-work would be far from accurate, according to two scholars who reported this month on the lives of 10 female entrepreneurs after continuously monitoring the activities of each from dawn to dusk for a full work week (a total of 465 hours of observation). The women's businesses ranged from designing gift baskets to management consulting to serving as a construction representative.
The study may be the first to probe the complexity of female entrepreneurial life in such detail. And the picture that emerges is not a happy one.
Moreover, this is true in all 10 cases, even though the women were selected for the study simply on the basis of being entrepreneurs and not because of anything problematic about their lives or businesses.
In a report to the annual meeting of the Academy of Management (Montreal, Aug. 7-10), Kristina A. Bourne and Pamela J. Forman, colleagues at the University of Wisconsin Eau Clair, argued that even though "flexible work arrangements are often offered as a solution to the struggle individuals feel between work and non-work responsibilities...flexibility is an insufficient solution to work-life balance because of the underlying supremacy of work in our culture....As business owners [these women] claim that their occupation affords them flexibility over their work schedules and cite this flexibility as an advantage to balancing work and other aspects of life. The reality...was that this supposed flexibility favored work, causing much angst and tension in the women's lives."
Yet, the reality was not fully recognized by the women, the professors observe. "They did not necessarily recognize as work the times when they were working while doing other things such as sipping wine in one hand and filing papers with the other. The concept of 'working light' that we introduce depicts the propensity to work during non-work times and to lighten this burden of work by combining it with some form of relaxation. When work becomes the fulcrum around which lives are organized, family, home, leisure and all else are subordinated. As our analysis shows, individuals arrange their schedules to accommodate work, prepare to return to work, or work leisurely during supposed free time."
Invoking the celebrated early 20th-century sociologist Max Weber, Bourne and Forman note his "grave concern that the spirit of capitalism and the control of bureaucracies over our lives would render us trapped in iron cages. Certainly one way to feel better about one's place in a bureaucracy is to gain a position of authority, which is what these business owners have succeeding in doing." But rather than escaping the iron cage, the professors say, the women have achieved the equivalent of "softening the bars."
Asked to elaborate on their paper, Bourne and Forman concede that "working out of our homes lessens commute times, reduces our carbon footprint, and allows us to deal with the broken pipe in the basement, while a flexible schedule allows us to attend an event at our children's schools and go to the gym for an afternoon workout. We argue in the paper, however, that shifting the allotted time between work and other aspects of life may not ultimately alleviate stresses, that the ruse of flexibility can create more stress on workers due to the underlying supremacy of work in our culture.  Our society needs to rethink our often unacknowledged privileging of work, work fewer hours, reduce workloads, and reward, rather than penalize, individuals who do so."

The study, entitled "Living in a Culture of Overwork: Why Flexibility Is an Insufficient Solution for Work-Life Balance," was among several thousand research reports at the Academy of Management annual meeting, held in Montreal from August 7th to 10th.  Founded in 1936, the Academy is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. It has about 19,700 members in 102 countries, including about 11,000 in the United States. This year's annual meeting will draw more than 9,000 scholars and practitioners for sessions on a host of subjects relating to business strategy, corporate organization and investment, the workplace, technology development, and other management-related topics.

Media Coverage:
National Post. Women's Work Is Never Done, Study Shows. (Tuesday, August 10, 2010).
Toronto Star. Flexible work arrangements can be a trap. (Saturday, September 11, 2010).

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