Skip to contentSkip to navigation

The Organization Man and Woman

A look back at a classic study of 1950s-era corporate culture sheds light on how companies can make the workplace more hospitable to strivers of all genders.

I was struck, yet unsurprised, by a new survey featured in the Financial Times showing that women view “workplace culture” as the biggest impediment to their careers by a significant margin. Although work–life balance continues to monopolize public discussion, the number of female respondents reporting that a workplace designed by and for male advancement was the primary barrier to their own advancement was nearly double that citing the difficulty of balancing work and family. Of course, the two barriers are fundamentally linked.

What do we mean when we talk about workplace culture? It’s primarily a set of expectations, values, and behaviors that shape how people organize their work, build professional relationships, and structure their time. And although the Cambridge survey, conducted by Dame Barbara Stocking, president of Murray Edwards College at Cambridge University and former CEO of Oxfam Great Britain, does not specify how a workplace “designed by men, for men” hinders women, looking at expectations concerning time presents an irresistible place to start.

It’s always struck me as profoundly ironic that women began entering the workplace in significant numbers and achieving positions of authority and influence at precisely the historical moment when work was becoming unusually time-consuming and intense — the late 1980s. We all know the reasons: Portable technologies that spread work out 24/7; the constant learning curve required to keep up with these ever-changing tools; the imperative of global competition, which affects even local businesses; and the need for incessant innovation that’s the defining characteristic of a knowledge-based economy.

These conditions have nothing to do with gender. Yet given that research shows women continuing to bear more responsibility at home than men, it also means the toll of pressure is often greater for women. And because this intense culture has been established for so long, people tend to assume that work has always been a pressure cooker, at least for those seeking significant achievement.

But it hasn’t always been this way. One has only to reread, as I did recently, The Organization Man, William H. Whyte’s classic 1956 study of young executives in big companies (what we might today call high potentials) to see how dramatically our work culture has shifted. The lives of the men Whyte profiled are barely recognizable to us. Mostly suburbanites, they catch a leisurely 8:40 a.m. train into the city, participate in meetings, dictate notes to their secretaries, enjoy collegial lunches out at restaurants, and usually arrive home before 5:30, after having a cocktail or two aboard the train. Their evenings seem centered on playing catch with the kids and an early dinner followed by a bit of lawn care or a snooze in front of the television.

With the exception of “traveling salesmen,” who mostly use their cars to visit clients, Whyte’s strivers rarely travel for work. When they do, it’s a festive novelty along the lines of Don Draper and Roger Sterling’s joyous escape to California sunshine in Mad Men. There is nothing like the continual stresses experienced by today’s road warriors, male and female, who must routinely tear out of the house at 4:30 a.m. to catch an early flight and then stay up until 2 a.m. in their hotels answering emails.

Although undoubtedly conformist and unquestionably misogynistic, daily life in these 1950s-era organizations seems a paradise in contrast to today — a paradise that women almost entirely missed out on. This is particularly striking because women often bring values to the workplace that are out of sync with what contemporary organizations routinely expect people to value.

Although conformist and misogynistic, daily life in these 1950s-era organizations seems a paradise in contrast to today.

Monetary reward has always been the carrot assumed to motivate people at work, whereas fear is often the unacknowledged stick. This bargain lies at the heart of workplace culture as it developed on what we might call the male watch: The belief that if financial rewards are sufficient, people will willingly trade whatever is asked in terms of time and quality of life. But women often seem skeptical about the terms of the bargain, which may be one reason women’s progress at senior levels has been slow.

I was first tipped off about this when interviewing several dozen women who had left high-level and high-reward jobs. Over and over, these women told me that their jobs “were just not worth it,” even though the positions they’d left were perceived to have high worth in the marketplace in terms of the money and status they conferred. The consistent language I heard from the women I spoke with suggested a slightly different set of values might be at play. And because the actual values of these women had not been factored into how their organizations calculated motivation and reward, they did not view these jobs as unquestionably desirable.

To get to the bottom of this mismatch, Julie Johnson, an executive coach, and I ran out a good-sized data study that later became part of the research for our book, The Female Vision. Because we viewed satisfaction as a yardstick that could be useful in measuring what people find truly motivating, we sought to identify similarities and differences in how men and women perceive, define, and pursue satisfaction at work.

We found many overlaps between what men and women found satisfying: Leading successful teams, motivating others, building relationships, the chance to exercise their skills and talents to the fullest. Yet we also found some significant differences. For example, the women surveyed tended to take satisfaction in meeting their own benchmarks for success rather than measuring their achievements against those of others, which made them less responsive to status as a motivation.

In addition, women tended to assign value to their work based on the quality of their daily experience rather than where the job might be leading in the future. The quality of their experience was embedded in their freedom to cultivate strong relationships on the job and to exert some control over their pace — not every day, but certainly over time. The texture of every day mattered, rather than whether the job served as a stepping-stone; if they had a consistently poor daily experience, they didn’t place as high a value on the job.

This may help explain what the women in the survey cited in the Financial Times were getting at when they reported feeling stymied in a workplace designed by men for male advancement. In essence, they were describing a culture in which people “don’t have a life” and view money and status as worth any amount of sacrifice are most likely to get ahead. Setting aside the unthinking misogyny that prevailed in 1956, these are women who might well have flourished in the culture described by William H. Whyte.

Although nobody advocates turning back the clock a half-century, there are surely ways companies can respond to women’s desire for work they can enjoy on a daily basis. And because evidence suggests that many millennials of both genders, as well as a growing number of men who want to be more present for their families, also share these values, the need to recalibrate will undoubtedly become more pressing.

What might companies do in response? They might look at the extent to which technology has redefined non-urgent tasks as urgent. They might give people more scope to set their own policies with regard to time and technology. They might push back against disruptive upgrades and continual restructurings that suck up time and reduce motivation. They might question the utility of performance objectives that make people’s lives hell and erode their relationships with customers. They might rethink the allocation of assets to address the wild imbalance between ramping up motivation and mitigating stress.

These are just a few ideas. Companies that want to take a serious look at their culture will surely identify many others. And they can make a start by recognizing that globalization and digital technologies have pushed them to adopt practices that make little sense absent the assumption that talented people will sacrifice anything so long as the financial and status rewards are great enough. It’s an implicit trade-off that big portions of the workforce no longer find “worth it.”

Sally Helgesen

Sally Helgesen is the author of seven books on leadership, most recently How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back from Your Next Raise, Promotion, or Job, coauthored with Marshall Goldsmith. She delivers workshops and keynote addresses around the world and has been a contributor to s+b since 2005. 

Get s+b's award-winning newsletter delivered to your inbox. Sign up No, thanks
Illustration of flying birds delivering information
Get the newsletter

Sign up now to get our top insights on business strategy and management trends, delivered straight to your inbox twice a week.