The Touchscreen Ceiling: How Our “Always On” Culture Is Fueling the Gender Gap

And why we need a Third Women’s Revolution to end it.

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LightField Studios/ Shutterstock
LightField Studios/ Shutterstock

Want to get rid of the gender gap? It won’t happen until we get rid of burnout culture. That’s the takeaway of the bombshell piece in the New York Times — and it’s been the message of Thrive Global since day one.

As reporter Claire Cain Miller notes, American women are better educated than ever before. So why is it that these women are on the wrong side of the biggest — and still growing — gender gaps? It’s not just discrimination and it’s not just the lack of institutional support in the form of things like affordable daycare. It’s also because of our “always on” culture of burnout and overwork, and the very particular ways in which women are paying the highest price for it.

Here’s what’s at work. Until around the year 2000, working 50 hours or more a week meant you got paid less on an hourly basis. That flipped two decades ago as technology supercharged our winner-take-all economy. The incentives — along with the requirements, both spoken and unspoken — for overwork, especially in white-collar professions dominated by the highly educated, skyrocketed. This means that when couples have children, there is enormous pressure for one member of the couple to pull back. As Miller puts it, “parents can be on call at work only if someone is on call at home.” And most often, of course, the someone on call at home turns out to be the mother. “The reward to become the winner is a lot higher now than in the past,” Youngjoo Cha of Indiana University told the Times. “You have to stick out among workers, and one way is by your hours.”

And it explains why, even though men and women now get comparable jobs in law and business after graduating from school, 10 years later a gender gap will have opened. In fact, because more highly educated women are having children, those in their 40s are actually less likely to be working now than 10 years ago.

Miller notes that the “overwork premium” is most pronounced in what are called “the greed professions,” which is what sociologist Lewis Coser called the professions that “seek exclusive and undivided loyalty” and “reduce the claims of competing roles.” But in our device-tethered world, in which it’s possible for work to be just a screen tap away, that describes not just big law, finance and consulting, but most jobs.

The overwork premium is an overwork penalty for women. And changing that is part of what I call the Third Women’s Revolution. The first was led by the suffragettes over a century ago, by, among others, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. The second revolution was led by women like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, who fought — and Gloria is still fighting — to grant full access to women in every part of our society. The second revolution is, of course, still underway, as it should be. But we can’t wait for the third one to begin, because without it, we cannot win the second.

The Third Women’s Revolution is about ending our culture of burnout, which as the data now clearly shows, is fueling the gender gap. It’s the touchscreen ceiling, with technology driving the expectation to be “always on,” and it’s slowing and even reversing advances women had been making in the workplace.

Yes, we absolutely still need more family-friendly policies. But we need to do more than just make it easier for women to be at work. We need a wider examination of the way we’re working once we’re at work. “This is really a system problem,” Harvard Business School’s Leslie Perlow told the Times. “People don’t recognize how being always on is creating this pressure to be always on.”

For mothers, the workplace gender gap is widened by the mental load women disproportionately bear at home. As Jennifer Owens describes it in Slate, the mental load is “the planning, scheduling, negotiating and problem-solving work that goes into running the business of your family.” Take the division of household labor. In a viral New York Times article, “What ‘Good’ Dads Get Away With,” Darcy Lockman calls this “one of the most important gender-equity issues of our time.” Even as women take on more responsibility at work and men take on more responsibility at home, women are still the ones largely orchestrating everything that has to be done to manage the family and keep the household running: “All this,” Lockman writes, “comes at a cost to women’s well-being, as mothers forgo leisure time, professional ambitions and sleep.”

This, of course, has consequences for women in the workplace. As Miller grimly notes, when women do work “extreme hours,” the gender gap fades. But that’s not a great victory for women. And it’s not great for men, either. Better for everybody would be a way of working in which both men and women are able to realize their potential and succeed in their careers without sacrificing their physical health, their mental health or their families.

Miller writes that the resistance to change is that “companies benefit from always-on workers,” and “won’t change just to be humane.” But Thrive Global is based on the science that shows that, in fact, requiring employees to be “always on” is enormously costly for businesses. When people are encouraged to prioritize their well-being and take time to unplug and recharge, they perform better across the board. And the good news is that more and more companies — in the “greedy professions” and beyond — are starting to get it.

It will be the work of the Third Women’s Revolution to accelerate this culture shift. That’s the way to close the gender gap. And the men will thank us, too.

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