Joan C. Williams, who has looked at work-life balance as a reform-minded scholar, offers her answer at Harvard Business Review. It's an important question for our profession because in private practice so much emphasis is placed on the total number of hours worked. I like that Williams acknowledges the impact of long hours on advancing in the elite circles of our profession. But I can't quite agree that those who work long hours are a "problem" or exhibit a false set of priorities. Williams writes:
This "long hours problem," analyzed so insightfully by Robin Ely and Irene Padavic, is a key reason why the percentage of women in top jobs has stalled at about 14 percent, a number that has barely budged in the past decade. We can't expect progress when the fast track that leads to top jobs requires a time commitment that excludes most mothers — and by extension, most women. A recent study by Joni Hersch of Vanderbilt Law School found that the mothers most likely to enter the fast track — graduates of elite universities — are less likely to be working full time than mothers with less prestigious degrees. Only 45.3 percent of mothers who graduated from top-tier institutions — and only 34.8 percent of MBAs — have full-time jobs. Most aren't full-time homemakers: in addition to parenting, they typically have part-time jobs or community service roles. But you can bet your boots it's under-valued work that rarely, if ever, leads to positions of power.
We can't get mothers to work more hours. We've tried, and failed, for forty years. Mothers won't bite for a simple reason: if they work 55 hours a week, they will leave home at, say, 8:30 and return at 8:30 every day of the workweek, assuming an average commute time. Most moms have this one little hang-up: they want to see their children awake. Increasingly, many fathers do, too.
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So here's where we stand. If institutions are serious about advancing women, they'll have to address the hours problem — that's the only way to get a critical mass of women poised for leadership. But we'll never address the hours problem until we open up a conversation about what drives it.
It's not productivity. It's not innovation. It's identity. If you've lived a life where holidays are a nuisance, where you've missed your favorite uncle's funeral and your children's childhoods, in a culture that conflates manly heroism with long hours, it's going to take more than a few regressions to convince you it wasn't really necessary, after all, for your work to devour you.