Women At Work

08.02.134:45 AM ET

The Overtime Paradox

Working longer hours and staying late at the job can prove detrimental to a woman's professional success, says Peggy Drexler.

In a culture where long hours and incessant demands on time can be something of a badge of honor—people wouldn’t need you so much if you weren’t so indispensible—it’s common to hear complaints about being busy. Long hours are evidence of dedication and work ethic. They are evidence of importance. But for women, they may also be professionally damaging.

This is especially relevant at a time when more women are working longer hours, increasingly in management positions in hard-driving, always-on-call industries like tech, finance, and law. A 2004 study found that the proportion of women who work 50 hours or more per week increased from 5 to 11 percent between 1979 and 2000, while a survey of 5,000 U.S. workers last year by career site theFit found that 54 percent of women report working nine or more hours a day, compared with 41 percent of men. In recent months, many accomplished women have rallied against overworking in favor of the much-discussed, if often-elusive, work-life balance, including Facebook executives Sheryl Sandberg, who leaves work at 5:30 so that she can have dinner with her family at 6, and Nicola Mendelsohn, who reportedly negotiated a four-day workweek when she was hired earlier this year. But what if clocking out at a reasonable hour isn’t just acceptable, but preferable? What if leaving early not only helps women achieve balance, but in fact actually helps foster professional success?

Recent studies by sociologists from Indiana University suggest this to be the case: that overworking helps hold women back in a number of ways. In one study, published in April in the journal Gender & Society, researchers found that putting in 50 hours a week or more did not help women in professional and managerial occupations get ahead, but in fact did the opposite by contributing to continued gender segregation. In instances where women were called on, or felt pressured, to work more than 50 hours a week, male-dominated fields like law or finance remained male-dominated, especially among women with children. A second study found that overworking negatively affects women’s health more than it does men’s.

One reason overworking women may suffer more than men is because working more at the office doesn’t mean they’re working less at home. Sure, while men are pitching in more around the house than they did 30 years ago, women are still carrying a far greater domestic workload, even when both spouses are working. On average, working mothers perform about 80 minutes more child-care and household duties per day than working dads, who in turn get nearly 50 more minutes of leisure activities, like watching television or exercising. Which could be why the Indiana study found that nearly 7 percent of mothers who worked 50 hours or more a week in male-dominated fields ended up quitting those jobs within four months.

Leaving work at a reasonable hour can also help women do their jobs better by providing them with the sort of family time—that work-life balance—that can help make the workday more meaningful. As one high-powered retail exec I met, Lauren, told me, “The time I get to spend with my daughter every night is what keeps me going at the office. It helps me be more productive and, I believe, more inspired.” She’s not missing out by leaving early; she’s becoming a better employee.

So how do women resist the temptation to stay as late, or later, than their male counterparts— especially in male-dominated professions that tend to demand employees put in more time? It’s difficult, but not impossible. Sandberg has said it wasn’t until recently that she was able to admit publicly the time she left the office, and for years felt the need to justify the action. “I was getting up earlier to make sure [co-workers] saw my emails at 5:30, staying up later to make sure they saw my emails late,” she’s said. But once she realized she was getting her work done, and well, Sandberg says it became easier to own her choices.

This is what’s at the heart of ending the dangerous cycle of overworking: not feeling bad about going home, and recognizing the actual benefits in it—both for life and for work. It may be a while before women no longer feel pressure to “prove themselves” but if more resist the pressures to stay late—and show their work doesn’t suffer, and might actually improve—change will come. As Lauren told me, “Knowing that I’ll be home in time to see my daughter before she goes to bed has meant I’m more present when I’m at work. I am, most definitely, better at my job for it.”