Study Finds Men Are Excellent at Looking Busy


Many of us are constantly looking for that perfect productivity level that will allow us to succeed while still retaining majority ownership of our soul, but would it surprise you to learn that Men™ have come up with a life-hack to bypass this drudgery? Apparently being a fake workaholic is a thing, and dudes are better at it.

At least, they are better at it at one elite consulting firm that Erin Reid, a professor at Boston U’s Questrom School of Business, spent some time studying. At this firm—which, like all consulting firms, as a culture of intense hours and long workweeks—Reid interviewed over 100 people, perused performance reviews, and took a gander at internal documents (and published the results in Organizational Science). What she found, according to a NYT piece by Neil Irwin, was that while everyone lived under the pressure of being beholden to clients around the clock and sacrificing anything like a real personal life, some people—men, especially—were faking 80-hour or 90-hour workweeks. And getting away with it.

Those fakers interviewed told Reid that missing a client meeting for your kid’s Cub Scout game was simply not acceptable. Irwin writes:

Some people fully embraced this culture and put in the long hours, and they tended to be top performers. Others openly pushed back against it, insisting upon lighter and more flexible work hours, or less travel; they were punished in their performance reviews.
The third group is most interesting. Some 31 percent of the men and 11 percent of the women whose records Ms. Reid examined managed to achieve the benefits of a more moderate work schedule without explicitly asking for it.

That’s right. A third of the men found successful backdoor methods to work/life balance while appearing devoted to the slog. How?

They made an effort to line up clients who were local, reducing the need for travel. When they skipped work to spend time with their children or spouse, they didn’t call attention to it. One team on which several members had small children agreed among themselves to cover for one another so that everyone could have more flexible hours.
A male junior manager described working to have repeat consulting engagements with a company near enough to his home that he could take care of it with day trips. “I try to head out by 5, get home at 5:30, have dinner, play with my daughter,” he said, adding that he generally kept weekend work down to two hours of catching up on email.

By the way, that guy got a great performance review. So did all the other so-called “passing” workaholics. They got reviews as good as the real workaholics, which proves what we have all suspected to be true is absolutely true: Work smarter, not harder. Or faker. Whatever it takes.

Of course, it’s worth noting that concluding that men are “better” at faking it may be putting the credit in the wrong performance review. It’s just as possible these men are more likely to be believed when they say they are on company time, that their working lives are less scrutinized, and judged less harshly, because they are men. It’s possible that all you need to unlock the secret sword with the right magic spell is a penis, and that the main benefit they’re reaping is called the benefit of the doubt—that beautiful thing that allows you to be treated like an adult at work and left alone so long as productivity is in line and no one is complaining.

What is more interesting here is how all this shakes out for women, and you don’t even have to read any further to know it’s not good. You’ve probably guessed that the discrepancy largely comes down to childcare, haven’t you? And you’re right:

…women, particularly those with young children, were much more likely to request greater flexibility through more formal means, such as returning from maternity leave with an explicitly reduced schedule. Men who requested a paternity leave seemed to be punished come review time, and so may have felt more need to take time to spend with their families through those unofficial methods.
The result of this is easy to see: Those specifically requesting a lighter workload, who were disproportionately women, suffered in their performance reviews; those who took a lighter workload more discreetly didn’t suffer. The maxim of “ask forgiveness, not permission” seemed to apply.

Other good and applicable maxims: “Be a man, not a woman.”

Irwin writes that it would be dangerous to extrapolate too much from one study at one firm, but let’s anecdotally extrapolate anyway, shall we? Generally speaking, if women are still more likely to be default caregivers, the people who miss work when the child is sick, take them to all those doctor’s appointments, and shuttle them around after school, there’s simply less wiggle room there to fake hustle on company time. And for most women, that would be too exhausting, anyway, I would venture. Much better to set up a schedule in advance that allows you to do the work you can’t get out of then live a double life.

The truth is that it is still easier for men to appear untethered, to “hide” the demands of childcare and parenthood—because there is often a woman, paid or otherwise, picking up the slack in the background. For one, there’s less of a clear visual that signals “mom”—men typically look the same before and after participating in procreation, don’t need to find a place to pump milk, are less likely to be the person getting up at night with the child and therefore losing sleep, and have no idea what mesh panties feel like day-to-day. So by appearances alone, they can fake the career-unaffected-by-children easier. (Valid question: Is it even really faking then? Or is it literally being less tethered?)

Two: Women, ever counseled to play by the rules to get ahead even though playing by the rules guarantees you exactly nothing, are more likely to keep quiet and not rock the boat. We’re more likely to make choices out of the more pressing fear of losing our jobs: in other words, asking permission rather than risking having to ask forgiveness.

But, I’ll say that I don’t begrudge fake workaholics their lightened workload. I admire it. It’s smart. We could learn a thing or two from it. Part of the challenge for any less economically empowered group is to learn to infiltrate the existing system and pick up on the rules you never had a hand in creating, and then change the system from within. This is kind of one of the (dubious, controversial, but highly entertaining) 48 Laws of Power: “Think as you like, but behave like others.”

In other words, we can learn that it works better to appear to be in line while secretly milking things for all they are worth. Irwin speculates that maybe the problem isn’t faking it, though, perhaps it’s “that too many companies reward the wrong things, favoring the illusion of extraordinary effort over actual productivity.”

Well, yeah. That. And it’s also sexism. So yeah, maybe we should be exploiting the loopholes of perception just as men do. Maybe we would be better off faking it a little ourselves. Certainly it’s better than being stuck between a rock and a bad performance review. But, inevitably, without a changes in affordable childcare and double standards with regard to how women are evaluated, we are unlikely to even have the luxury of being quite so fake.

Image via Getty.

Contact the author at [email protected].

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