New Normal: Ideal Workers, Gender Equality, and COVID-19 with Alyson Gounden Rock (Read Transcript)

Season 2 Episode 5 of The ‘New Normal’ hosted by Dave Kaufman: New Normal: Ideal Workers, Gender Equality, and COVID-19 with Alyson Gounden Rock
Dave Kaufman – host: Who is the ideal worker? Do they work 40, 50, 60 hour weeks? Do they answer their phone or emails at 2:00 in the morning? Do they have a family? If so, does work take priority over that family, over the birthdays, anniversaries, recitals, soccer games? Can someone even have a family and be an ideal worker? What if the ideal worker was just a fantasy that kept men from being honest about their work and kept women from achieving work parody with their male counterparts? What if I tell you that the ideal worker never existed, and that when we pretend to be that ideal worker, we’re actually lying to both our employers and to ourselves?
Dave Kaufman – host: Welcome to the second season of the New Normal, the podcast exploring management research brought to you by Delve, the official thought leadership publication of McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management. I’m your host, Dave Kaufman.
Dave Kaufman – host: On this episode of the New Normal, we will discuss gender inequality, how the study of work and gender affects opportunities for women in the workplace, why what society views as the worker norm is a fallacy, at how the COVID-19 pandemic could, according to our guest on this episode, lead to a societal shift that has the possibility to result in workplace gender equality finally being achieved.
Dave Kaufman – host: Joining me for this episode is Alyson Gounden Rock, a Desautels Faculty of Management PhD Candidate in Organizational Behaviour. Gounden Rock’s research focuses on mechanisms of gender inequality that could inform solutions to make organizations, labor markets and society stronger, more equitable, and just. And her research is informed by her experience as a strategy consultant and social entrepreneur, and by her time out of the paid workforce to care for her three children.
Dave Kaufman – host: I spoke with her PhD advisor, Desautels Professor Brian Rubineau, who believes that Gounden Rock is the right person to take on this important work for a number of reasons.
Brian Rubineau: In general, PhD students follow their passions. Alyson is a non-traditional student who has had an extensive career prior to joining academia as a working person, as a consultant, as a mother. She has worked with executives. She’s worked with policy institutes. She’s taught. And in her wide range of experience, she consistently came up against observing the inequalities experienced between men and women, particularly those with families at all levels of organizations that she’s been with and all types of organizations, even in organizations that are working actively to confront these inequalities.
Brian Rubineau: She observed that we’ve done a very poor job of reducing, let alone eliminating, these inequalities based on both gender and family status. And so that’s one of the things that drew her into academia to try to say, why do we do this so badly? And what is it that we need to know so that we can do it better? And that’s the focus of her research.
Dave Kaufman – host: Let’s start at the beginning. Gounden Rock’s work experience began in London, England at Bain and Company, where she quickly learned that their version of an ideal worker was not one that was congruent with having a family.
Alyson Gounden Rock: I started at Bain and I was definitely an ideal worker. I would be there at least until 9:00 at night and sometimes overnight. It was a complete commitment to that organization. When I had children, it was just not the kind of career that you could stay being a working consultant and have children, and so I made the decision to leave the workforce and in fact was a stay-at-home mother for 15 years. When I tried to come back into the workplace is when I realized quite how strong those ideal worker norms, because my future potential and sense of commitment were completely determined by that one point in time where I wasn’t able to work without any limits on my time.
Dave Kaufman – host: I was curious, since so much in our world had changed since Gounden Rock left the workforce, raised a family and returned to academia, does she believe that the ideal worker norm still exists?
Alyson Gounden Rock: I think the answer to that is yes. We still have a sense that an ideal worker is someone who is available 24/7 and is someone who is particularly committed to the organization. One of the expectations that we have of workers are that they will be particularly available in certain temporal windows, 9:00 to 5:00 particularly, which makes it very difficult for many workers to fit that that norm.
Dave Kaufman – host: Has this become more difficult because of how digitized we are, or are there other factors beyond our technological advances?
Alyson Gounden Rock: The answer I think is that there’s definitely a different way in which we are currently all working and particularly, I mean, the elephant in the room is COVID, but I think the way that we think we should be working hasn’t changed. That really is the challenge. I mean, I’m a gender equality scholar, and the challenge is that the way in which we all think about working norms, men and women, is pretty intransigent and falls along those ideal worker norms. So we conflate availability in a certain window with commitment to an organization.
Dave Kaufman – host: We’ll get back to COVID and how that’s changed and will change the ideal worker in a bit, but right now, in order to better frame where we are today, I asked Gounden Rock to give a bit more background on how gender is viewed under the prism of studying the workforce.
Alyson Gounden Rock: This is the paper, with my colleagues, Ellen Kossek and Matthew Perrigino, we looked at how has the careers and integration of work and family being looked at over the last 50 years. We found some really interesting things along the gender line. Really the bigger literature was the careers literature. It’s the kind of thing that you might in high school, when somebody asked you to think about a career choice, that’s kind of the way that we thought about careers. That you decide what you’ll do, that you have some kind of training in it, and then you kind of follow a given career with a given company for a long time. That’s a very male kind of way of working, because it does assume that you have no other major commitments, that someone else is there to wash your clothes, to look after the kids.
Alyson Gounden Rock: It wasn’t until the 1970s, when women came into the workforce en masse, that we had to start thinking about how to study women and work. That’s when we came up with the work-family field. So you have careers, much bigger field that had been established much earlier, and then you have work-family that’s this newer, okay, what do women do and how do they work differently. So I think we’ve always had this thought in mind that men and women work differently.
Alyson Gounden Rock: Actually it goes back to what the work that’s happening outside of work, the unpaid work, the division of family labor. There are books and authors who talk about the second shift, that women are working outside the home, but they’re also working at home. I’m happy to tell you all about the literature that shows that women still do a significant amount more unpaid work than men. But it means that women are constrained more than men are constrained. And then it comes back to the point we started with, which is women are particularly temporally constrained. That a child has to be picked up. There are some things that have to happen; when the kid is sick, someone has to stay home.
Alyson Gounden Rock: So just answering your question about how is work gendered; you have this career and then this sense of work-family.
Dave Kaufman – host: And yet anecdotally you hear of more and more men working from home and dividing the labor. Is Mr. Mom a myth or something that we can build off?
Alyson Gounden Rock: Mr. Mom’s not a myth. My figures are a little old now, but for 5.1 million stay-at-home moms maybe 10 years ago, there were 186,000 stay-at-home dads. It’s not that it doesn’t happen; it’s just that it is much more rare to have a man be the sole care provider for a family. What’s super interesting here is that when a worker deviates from ideal working norms, we kind of think of them as a poor worker, but when a man deviates from ideal bread-winning norms, he also deviates from being man enough. So he’s kind of like a wimp.
Alyson Gounden Rock: That’s the issue is that that sense of contravening the norm, the social and the gender norm of work is extremely strong. And it means that that men… A great paper in 2015 from Erin Reid, showed that when men go pick up their kids from soccer, they don’t tell anyone. They’re working out of the office. They’re there with a client. When women go pick up their kids from school, they do it under like a work-family, go home early once a week purview. Men are just hiding and women are revealing. And men hide that deviance from ideal working norms for very good reasons, because they will be seen as not man enough.
Dave Kaufman – host: How do we change that deep rooted norm? And if a man is hiding his deviance from the working norm in order to fit into society, then is there a flip side to that? Does a woman have to show that she can do it all, that she can pick up the kids from soccer, chair the meeting and not miss a beat?
Alyson Gounden Rock: That’s a great question, Dave. I think what it is is that if you think about it in terms of what are our gender norms, we kind of have a bread-winning and a caregiving norm. Bread-winning is about the world of work, money, hard dealing. Whereas caregiving is kind of a softer communal look-after-you norm. For men, what’s kind of helpful in the world of work is that everything to do with work and success is kind of a masculine trait.
Alyson Gounden Rock: So men, as long as they do the work in a bread-winner norm, in a masculine ideal worker norm, they’re going with the gender norm. Whereas when women try to succeed at work, they’re already contravening the gender norm we expect of them, of being soft and calming and nice, and that’s why you hear about backlash for being not nice enough. Whereas men who cross over to the caregiving are contravening. That’s why I’m kind of leading with the men being seen as not man enough. What we’ve seen in work is that men tend to hide it when they deviate. I’m fascinated by that, and I’d be happy to tell you more about my work on thinking about that.
Alyson Gounden Rock: One thing that I think will come from COVID, or potentially I could imagine coming from COVID, is that until now the normal has been that you work in the office and if you work outside of the office … I don’t know if you’ve heard about working from home or shirking from home or remote work or remotely working, there’s a sense of stigma of are they actually working?
Dave Kaufman – host: This is something everyone working from home since the start of the pandemic has either thought about or dealt with to some extent.
Alyson Gounden Rock: And it’s a good reason, that it’s harder for a manager to actually see that work is being done. There’s this suspicion that maybe they’re not working. There’s a paper in 2015 by a scholar at Stanford called Nicholas Bloom, and he ran an experiment in a Chinese travel agency. He actually found that after a nine month randomized control trial, that the workers who were working from home were 30% more productive than the workers working in the office, but that they only got promoted at half of the speed of people in the office. So there’s something about being able to actually verify that someone is working, which is actually stronger than the reality of whether they’re being productive. What I think might happen with COVID is because the choice to work from home has been taken away, and because we have improved technology, you can also through Zoom, see people working, I think that it has the potential to get out the underlying stigma of working from home.
Alyson Gounden Rock: There’s another…I love this concept. It sounds a bit convoluted. It’s called pluralistic ignorance. It’s basically that you, Dave, might like to work from home. You might have kids, you might want to see them, be with them at certain time, and you might know that you’re really productive, but you might not want other people to know that you think that because you might think that other people actually don’t think that. So we have this situation where particularly for men, I think, many, many men think that they would like to say work from home, but they assume that other men don’t condone that.
Alyson Gounden Rock: So I think that COVID has the potential to de-stigmatize this practice by making people’s private practice and thoughts about work from home more visible. So when you see some successful guy and a crying baby sitting on their lap, it makes it more clear to you that, oh, your colleagues are also doing this. And so I think that that will be the thing that could come out of COVID to de-stigmatize work from home, which will then be very good for the people who’ve always been stigmatized for it, which is the main caregivers, who are women.
Dave Kaufman – host: If thought leaders had been aware of these siloed walls that divide genders at work for over half a century, why is it that the COVID-19 pandemic could actually break them down?
Alyson Gounden Rock: When we look back in 50 years, this will have been a seminal moment. COVID has changed everything. It’s changed the mobile way of work. I was listening to a podcast last night about the views on working from home are actually extremely divergent, from absolutely don’t want to, I only want to work from home. But it averages out to a preference for two days out of five, which is what most experts’ thinking will probably happen into the future. And actually because the labor market is so tight at the moment, what employers are finding is that if they don’t offer a two in five, then they’re not going to be able to hire the workforces that they need to be successful. So my hope is that this really will have been a seminal moment.
Dave Kaufman – host: We can all hope so, but I wonder, beyond work from home being normalized, how else could the ideal worker norm be disrupted? Gounden Rock mentions two ways; via temporal flexibility, as well as the valuing of occupations.
Alyson Gounden Rock: I’ll say a few things about temporal flexibilities. I think it’s very important. Usually not being the ideal worker means not being available for particular pieces of time in the day, usually 9:00 to 5:00. If you look at the hourly rate of workers, you find that working part-time gives you a much lower hourly rate than working full-time, which in many ways makes no sense, but the occupation in which there is the smallest gap about 7%, which is, I mean of them are up to an over 50%, is pharmacy. I mention it only because there are three really interesting things about pharmacy. The reason that if you work part-time or full-time as a pharmacist, you get paid roughly the same amount of money. That’s very important because that’s the way that we are able to balance home and work. If I could have been a pharmacist when my kids were young, I would still be working. I would not have taken a 10 year gap.
Alyson Gounden Rock: So when you have this temporal flexibility, Claudia Goldin calls them puzzle pieces, that you can kind of switch these people in and out, then you can get to closer gender equality because you get to closer couple equality. If you are a lawyer, you do not get paid half if you are a full-time lawyer and a part-time lawyer, because the full-time lawyer is a partner track lawyer, the part-time lawyer is in-house counsel. They’re not even remotely the same pay scales.
Alyson Gounden Rock: Why has pharmacy been so successful in closing that gap? Well, there are three reasons. One is this is a structural reason around the demand for pharmacy services. With an aging population, we need drugs. The second thing is that IT has allowed it not to matter who is behind the counter pulling the pills. And the third thing is we’ve consolidated the industry from lots of small mom and pop shops to big chains. Those three things made it possible for us to really close the gender gap in pharmacy. And so it is possible to do this, but the fixes are at a structural level.
Dave Kaufman – host: So we have the tools and the information to make things more equitable for men and women. The question remains, does society want to do anything about it to make it more fair? Gounden Rock points to a study that was shut down to show that at least in this one company’s instance, they did not want to make their workplace more fair.
Alyson Gounden Rock: There’s a study by Irene Padavic, Robin Ely, and Erin Reid called, The Work-Family Narrative. They were engaged to do a consulting study with a large company to help fix the women problem in the company, help get more women promoted. They did a great study, several years. They went and took their findings to the leadership and said, “You don’t have a woman problem; you have a work problem, incongruous with life problem for everyone, all of your workers.” And the answer was. “Thank you very much. You’re fired.” And so the study was then not writing up the how they helped to fix the problem; the study was, we got so far, we touched a nerve, we got thrown out. There’s something here. And that’s the Work-Family Narrative is that work-family is for women.
Dave Kaufman – host: So the research was painfully compiled, the findings explained and ultimately ignored. Gounden Rock’s hope is that the COVID-19 pandemic is what will give society another chance at redefining the ideal worker and in turn, make the work world much more fair for anyone who aims to be an ideal worker, regardless of their gender.
Alyson Gounden Rock: There’s a concept called scaffolding. Like it takes a scaffold of everyone else in order to have that one person be available. The paper that we wrote, that’s what we’re trying to say is that people have more things than work in their lives. People are attached to other people, linked lives. That actually people, they are dimension of diversity that we haven’t even begun to scratch. My experience as a stay-at-home mom, that we throw people on the scrap heap when they contravene the ideal worker norm, and we don’t take them back again. Or based on race or based on these other characteristics. And the last thing is that we don’t see work in a greater, larger political, social, technological, economic kind of sense. That’s our hope is that as we look to the next 50 years, we’re thinking about what is ideal work, not who is an ideal worker, because it doesn’t exist.
Dave Kaufman – host: Which I believe brings us to the heart of it; if Gounden Rock believes that the ideal worker can’t truly exist, then how do we go about creating the circumstances that enables ideal work for everyone?
Alyson Gounden Rock: The research I’m thinking about around the pandemic, I think is a way to answer that, which is nobody ever was an ideal worker. Most people who were, were hiding it, were actually hiding what they were really doing, or someone else was doing other parts of the work. If we can open up what’s actually happening, that’s why I think that men hold the answer here, which is if men are willing to kind of show that even they are not able to be the ideal worker, I think that’s how you get to ideal work for all is actually revealing that everyone is deviant and making it normal.
Dave Kaufman – host: Let me be the first to put my hand in the air. Everyone is deviant. There. That feels nice to say. Men, let’s say it out loud together. Everyone is deviant. So is the answer essentially this; if men admit that they can’t do it all, that they aren’t the ideal worker and that nobody is, does that pave the way for gender equality?
Alyson Gounden Rock: If you think about this as a huge knot in front of us of twisted ropes and strings, and if we were looking for someplace with a little bit of play just to start undoing the knot, the place that I would go for would be giving men a little bit more latitude to be who they actually are. I think it’ll help with the generational change too. Many studies show that men want balance in their lives across work, and non-work, as much as women do, but the pressures on them are even greater than on women in terms of not being allowed to show that they want that for themselves. And so they’re forced to kind of hide it when they do it.
Alyson Gounden Rock: I think that if, if senior management really wanted gender equality, then senior management would be part of a role modelling change. There’s a big if there, because again, you said it earlier on, when you have a sense that there’s a pie and it’s like a negotiation, that it’s about distributing the pie, then that’s, I think the Work-Family Narrative where they tripped over a wire. That study was that they were trying to ask for too many pieces of the pie to be given to the women. What we need to do is grow the pie for everyone. I think that it’s allowing men to have the latitude to be more open and to really reveal their preferences and to understand that that’s actually better for everyone.
Dave Kaufman – host: If we think about distributing the pie rather than growing the pie, the future is in working out how we make companies and individuals realize that having this kind of integrated worker model is actually growing the pie for everyone. That workers are more productive, they’re happier, they’re more committed, they don’t quit, and that companies see that that is aligned with their goals, then I think that that’s where you get the company buy-in for helping men to role model this kind of more real model of work. But we’re a very long way from that, I think. It’s a long way out.
Dave Kaufman – host: Gounden Rock’s research and life experience helped to make a very compelling argument, that the time is long overdue for women to have their place at the table, right beside their male counterparts. By admitting that us men are not robots, and perhaps that our eyes aren’t on the prize 24/7, we can show that the ideal worker norm is a myth. It’s more fairytale than reality. And only by opening that work door to all can men and women finally navigate this New Normal together.
Dave Kaufman – host: The New Normal is brought to you by Delve, the official thought leadership publication of McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management. I’m your host, Dave Kaufman. Producers of today’s episode, Dave Kaufman, Robyn Fadden and David Rawalia. The technical producer of the New Normal is David Rawalia.