The Best of Both Worlds

To add additional context to Linda Tischler’s feature story, Fast Company offers two edited transcripts of interviews with Professor Charles A. O’Reilly at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and Catherine Hakim, a sociology professor at the London School of Economics.


To add additional context to Linda Tischler’s feature story, Fast Company offers two edited transcripts of interviews with Professor Charles A. O’Reilly at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and Catherine Hakim, a sociology professor at the London School of Economics.

Catherine Hakim, a sociology professor at the London School of Economics, recently completed a large survey in Spain and the UK of people’s labor force preferences — in short, how men and women each value work in their lives. Her results are notable since they get at how people feel about these topics in their personal lives, rather than how they feel about public policy. The results may surprise you; they certainly did the European Commission.


FC: You recently completed a survey of 3,700 people in Britain and Spain about labor force preferences. What did you find?

Catherine Hakim: Over the last 20 years, we’ve gotten a completely new scenario in terms of social and economic changes. Women have genuine choices for the first time in history. In modern societies you now see three very distinctive labor force preferences: A minority of women — about a third — are work-centered; a minority — again, about a third — are home-centered; and the majority are in the middle. I call them “adaptives.” They want the best of both worlds. They want to combine family and paid employment. That means they’re never going to give priority to paid employment.

Since you’re only likely to get to the most senior positions if you give primacy to your job, women who want to balance between family life and paid employment will never reach the top. It’s more likely to be roughly 2 to 1 men at the highest levels of professional and managerial work, and you’ll never get the 50/50 split that many of us have hoped for in the past.

FC: What kind of reception have your conclusions gotten?

Hakim: I’ve given a lot of talks to labor groups on both sides of the government. There’s been a lot of interest and concern because the European Commission has explicitly stated that its goal is to have 50/50 men and women in all occupations, and very particularly in all senior positions. Any departure from that is being treated as sex discrimination.


I think that is completely insane. You can artificially impose such quotas, but if we’re going to allow people to make their own decisions about what occupations they enter, then it’s not a realistic goal.

FC: You conducted your study using preference theory. What is that?

Hakim: Both American and European studies ask what I call “public opinion” questions about what people think are good rules for society at large. But a lot of this data is misleading because it asks very general questions like: “Do you approve of women going out to work?” and “Do you approve of mothers working?” Of course, they all get a massive positive response. Methodologically, we have to ask questions that explore what a person might personally choose for her own life. Then you get a completely different answer. For example, a mother who says in general it’s a very good idea to allow mothers to work will say, “I personally choose not to. I want to be a full time mother. I want my children to have the best and I know that I can give them better care than any child minder that I can afford to pay.” So that’s where social scientists have made a mistake: confusing personal preferences with survey data on public attitudes.

FC: What did you discover about the men?

Hakim: Slightly less than half of all men are adaptive in that they want some kind of balance between family life and paid employment. But the majority of men — about 55% — are work-centered. That turns over one stereotype: that all men are totally career-obsessed. But it’s still 55% versus about 30% for women, which is a big difference.


Interestingly enough, gay men are less likely as a group to buy the total dedication to the job story. If they’re pairing off, they automatically have two salaries, and therefore more choices about how much to invest in their jobs, much the way women do.

FC: Still, 45% of straight men are saying they want more balance, too. Does that presage a change in the workplace?

Hakim: Eventually men will start to say, well, women have a lot of choices that we don’t have, and we wouldn’t mind them. Once employers start giving women all sorts of rights about balancing home and family, they’re going to start demanding the same privileges as well.

In the long run, employers’ schemes that give a lot of family-friendly benefits to women are going to bounce back in a negative way. We should be aiming for gender-neutral policies that would allow any person the right to paid leave, sabbaticals or whatever. They shouldn’t be tied to family roles because that immediately creates divisions in the workforce that are going to have to be put right later on.

FC: What is it about the race to the top that makes it so aversive to women?


Hakim: It takes prioritizing your career to the point where your private life, family life, and social life are wrapped around your career, rather than the two having equal weight. The key thing is not pre-plannable work, but unexpected deadlines, crisis points that turn up at short notice. If somebody has to do it, and if it’s the man who does, it will be the man who gets promoted, irrespective. It has nothing to do with male or female. That is the bottom line, and it’s not a sexist bottom line. Of course, you can say, jobs shouldn’t be greedy. But in practice, the higher up you go, by and large, jobs get greedier and greedier. The idea that if only employers would reshape jobs they would be perfectly easy for women to do is just nonsense.

FC: But is it really necessary to work killer hours to get ahead?

Hakim: I’m an academic; my thesis fits with sporting and artistic activities as well as the labor market. In the creative arts and in academic research the person who’s thinking about a problem 24 hours a day is going to produce more interesting work than the person who thinks about it five hours a day. The difference between a full-timer and a part-timer is not that the part-timer doesn’t do his five hours when he comes in; it’s that the person who’s a full-timer isn’t working just eight hours a day, he’s actually thinking about it 24 hours a day. Creativity enters a whole different level when that’s all that you think about; for a lot of jobs, that kind of mental, emotional, and intellectual input actually makes a qualitative difference in your output.

Take Picasso as an example of a work-centered person. He was, by all accounts, a really selfish, unpleasant man in his private life. But he was also totally dedicated and creative. The reason he had an amazing and varied output was because he was on it 24 hours a day.

There’s a level of creativity in management and business that has always been overlooked. Women could excel at this, but often their attention is diverted to solving other kinds of problems than intellectual or management issues.


FC: Are you saying that women can’t have both a good career and a good life? Is it really necessary to pick one?

Hakim: Men have always recognized that you really have to make choices. Women have deluded themselves into thinking that you don’t. This is not to say that you can’t have a decent family life and an interesting job as well. People who are working part time in professional jobs are having a much happier time than if they were home working full time as mothers or working as clerical workers. So we’ve made huge strides in making the “best of both worlds” argument work. I just don’t think those sorts of women are ever going to get into the top jobs, which is a different matter.

FC: Is there no hope for women who want to have both to really excel?

Hakim: There’s always the possibility that when their children leave home and they revert to full time work they might start thinking differently about their jobs. Since everybody is living longer, all the calculations are going to have to change. Now if you only have two children, that kind of two-stage life is going to be a real possibility in the future.

FC: Catalyst says the reason why women aren’t getting the top jobs is because they’re disproportionately clustered in staff, versus line positions. Any merit to that argument?


Hakim: One of the reasons women tend to gravitate toward staff positions is because they’re ones where you can organize and plan your work so you can go home at 5:30 on the dot. In the line positions, it’s more likely that a crisis or a problem will come up, and you’ll just have to deal with it. Accepting that the job takes over your life on the line side becomes quite crucial to being selected and accepted for senior positions.

FC: Let’s flip this subject on its ear for a moment. Why are men willing to make these sacrifices so readily?

Hakim: When you try to explain why men chase prestige, honor, money, glory, authority, and status more than women, some would argue that testosterone comes into it. People with high testosterone are power hungry and aggressive and dominant and apparently also sexually attractive to the opposite sex. That sort of biological difference may explain why men are more driven to public recognition of success than women. Women, on the other hand, find they can get recognition in the private sphere at home with children, and that may make them less interested in chasing success in the public sphere. You could argue these differences both socially and biologically.

FC: On the other hand, aren’t there benefits to men from having wives in the executive suite?

Hakim: Men who have a high-earning wives are now able to say, “I want to quit my corporate job and start up a business. Even though income from that may be patchy for the first couple years, I can do it that because my wife has a regular job.” Men are beginning to see that there can be advantages in the life choices and career choices that their wives have had.

About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.