Leaning In is Not the Same for Everyone

 Leaning In is Not the Same for Everyone

A new Gender & Society study reveals how overwork contributes to the “stalled gender revolution” and helps to explain why there isn’t more equality in the workplace, despite the popular belief that equality between men and women is a social good. The new study gives hints, too, about the challenges women face in order to “lean in” and get ahead.

Who is affected by overwork? In “Overwork and the Persistence of Gender Segregation in Occupations,” Indiana University sociologist Youngjoo Cha reports that overwork affects men and women differently—especially in fields where there are a lot more men than women to begin with. Dr. Cha finds that the impact of overwork on men and women is especially pronounced in occupations where the majority of employees are men, known as “male dominated occupations.” She found that:

  • In male-dominated occupations, overwork was more likely than in balanced fields or female-dominated fields.
  • Mothers were 52 percent more likely than other women to leave their jobs if they were working a 50-hour week or more, but only in occupations dominated by men.
  • Higher education levels make it more likely that women stay in their jobs—but not enough to overcome the discouraging effect of being an overworking mother.
  • Mothers in male-dominated occupations were more discouraged despite the fact that the women who survived in those more masculine fields may on average be more committed to work than overworking women in other jobs.
  • Meanwhile, men (whether fathers or not) and women without children were not more likely to leave their jobs in overworking fields.
  • When mothers left their jobs, some moved to less male-dominated professions; others entirely left the labor force.

The problem, according to Cha, is simple. Overworking mothers continue to have a larger share of caregiving responsibilities, compared to other workers. Cha explains that “Overwork disadvantages women with children in particular. In overworking workplaces, you have to be there or be on call all the time. That expectation can be met by people who have few caregiving or community responsibilities and who are not primary caregivers at home.” While men and women have adjusted their ability to share domestic caregiving in recent years, these more extreme situations of overwork demonstrate the limits of the flexibility that men and women often aim for—but can’t always achieve.

Why does overwork affect mothers only in male-dominated professions? Cha’s finding that overwork discourages women in male-dominated occupations begs the question, why? “If it were a case of women’s reticence to work additional hours,” Cha explains, “we would expect overworking women to be discouraged regardless of whether mainly men or women were at work.” But her results do not show that. Instead, the results suggest that something about jobs that are mainly populated by men discourages women. What’s that something? Cha observes that male-dominated professions are more likely to maintain strong and inflexible expectations of overwork.

Does this tell us anything about what dual earner couples can expect? Workplaces dominated by men tend to operate on outdated assumptions about “separate spheres” marriage — that is, families that have a homemaking woman and a breadwinning man. Yet today both partners are employed in nearly eighty percent of American couples.

Is this a case of opting out? Cha considered whether she had found evidence of “opting out”—the claim that women, when they can, leave work when they become mothers. “In my study, not all women with children leave the labor force. When they work long hours, it is the combination of being a mother, working long hours, and being in a male dominated profession that is discouraging.” Where overwork only in a male-dominated occupation influenced married women’s choices, Cha also found that husbands’ income didn’t change the basic findings.

In her article, Cha argues for promoting workplace policies that minimize the expectation for overwork, such as setting the maximum allowable work hours, prohibiting compulsory overtime, expanding the coverage of the Fair Labor Standards Act’s overtime provisions, and granting employees the right to work part-time hours without losing benefits. She advocates labor policies that can reduce work-family conflicts and benefit women, men, families, and firms.

As University of Massachusetts sociologist Joya Misra, editor of Gender & Society, comments, “‘Leaning in’ might not be the same for everyone. Cha’s study shows us that despite our best efforts, work and home still seem to generate unequal opportunities and benefits. The loss affects everyone: We’ll stop losing highly qualified women in their careers of choice when we reduce barriers like the culture of overwork and unequal sharing of care-work at home.”

The study is based on analysis of the Survey of Income and Program Participation, a national longitudinal household survey collected by the U.S. Census Bureau. The data covers years from 1996 through 2007. The sample was limited to full-time workers ages 18-64 who were in a job at the beginning of each of the survey periods.

Article: Youngjoo Cha, “Overwork and the Persistence of Gender Segregation in Occupations.” Gender & Society, Volume 27, issue 2 (April 2013), p. 158-184.


Youngjoo Cha is an Assitant Professor of Sociology at Indiana University. She studies gender, work, labor markets, social inequality, and employment discrimination. Her research explores sources of gender inequalities in labor market processes, institutional contexts, and the interplay between work and family. She is currently investigating how new ways of organizing work can reinforce gender earnings inequality. She can be reached at cha5@indiana.edu.




Gender & Society is a peer-reviewed journal, focused on the study of gender. It is the official journal of Sociologists for Women in Society, and was founded in 1987 as an outlet for feminist social science. Currently, it is a top-ranked journal in both sociology and women’s studies. Gender & Society, a journal of Sage Publications, publishes less than 10 percent of all papers submitted to it. For more information, contact Gender & Society editor Joya Misra, Professor of Sociology and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts. Misra is also affiliated with Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies and Labor Studies. Her research and teaching focus primarily on inequality. She can be reached at misra@soc.umass.edu.

Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS), currently headquartered at Southern Connecticut State University, works to improve women’s lives through advancing and supporting feminist sociological research, activism and scholars. Founded in 1969, SWS is a nonprofit, scientific and educational organization with more than 1,000 members in the United States and overseas. For more information, contact Dr. Shirley A. Jackson, Professor of Sociology at Southern Connecticut State University and SWS Executive Officer, at swseo@socwomen.org.

The Council on Contemporary Families is a non-profit, non-partisan organization of family researchers, mental health and social practitioners, and clinicians dedicated to providing the press and public with the latest research and best practice findings about American families. For more information on CCF researchers, contact Stephanie Coontz, Director of Research and Public Education, coontzs@msn.com.


For additional information and perspectives

Flexible workplaces

To discuss ideas that can help reduce overwork, Erin Kelly and colleagues have done research on a workplace initiative that helps reduce overwork. You can read about the “Results-Only Work Environment,” which is a management strategy where employees are evaluated on performance, not presence.” Erin Kelly, Samantha Ammons, Kelly Chermack and Phyllis Moen are authors of “Gendered Challenge, Gendered Response: Confronting the Ideal-Worker Norm in a White-Collar Organization,” Gender & Society June 2010 vol. 24 no. 3, 281-303   Erin Kelly is at kelly101@umn.edu. (Summary available here.)

A related study is also available: “Post-Fordist Work: A Man’s World?: Gender and Working Overtime in the Netherlands” by Patricia Van Echtelt, Arie Glebbeek, Suzan Lewis, and Siegwart Lindenberg. Gender & Society, April 2009; vol. 23, 2: pp. 188-214.

Gender segregation at work

For another study on how workplace composition—that is dominated by men, balanced, or dominated by women—influences people’s work experience and benefits, see Matt  Huffman and Philip Cohen’s article, “Occupational Segregation and the Gender Gap in Workplace Authority: National VersusLocal Labor Markets,” Sociological Forum March 2004 vol. 19, no. 1, 121-147.  Contact Philip Cohen at pnc@umd. edu. (Recent occupational segregation trends available

Also, “Occupational Sex Composition and the Gendered Availability of Workplace Support” by Catherine J. Taylor. Gender & Society, April 2010; vol. 24, 2: pp. 189-212.

Also, “Gender Discrimination at Work: Connecting Gender Stereotypes, Institutional Policies, and Gender Composition of Workplace” by Donna Bobbitt-Zeher Gender & Society, December 2011; vol. 25, 6: pp. 764-786.

“Opting out”

For a discussion of “opting out” as portrayed in media, contact Pamela Stone, co-author of “The Media Depiction of Women Who Opt Out,” Gender & Society June 2008 vol 22, 497-517. Pamela Stone is at pstone@hunter.cuny.edu.

Sarah Damaske shows how gender as well as social class influence approaches to work and offers an alternative to claims of “opting out” in  “A ‘Major Career Woman’?: How Women Develop Early Expectations about Work.”Gender & Society, August 2011; vol. 25, 4: pp. 409-430. Sarah Damaske is at sad32@psu.edu.

Paid work and housework

Sarah Thébaud’s cross-national study, “Masculinity, Bargaining, and Breadwinning: Understanding Men’s Housework in the Cultural Context of Paid Work,” Gender & Society, June 2010; vol. 24, 3: pp. 330-354, discusses under what conditions women’s paid work influences sharing of housework. She can be reached at sthebaud@soc.ucsb.edu.


Workplace polices and workplace conditions

The study “We (Have to) Try Harder: Gender and Required Work Effort in Britain and the United States” demonstrates that women have to work harder for the same amount of credit. See Gender & Society, December 2007; vol. 21, 6: pp. 828-856 by  Elizabeth H. Gorman and Julie A. Kmec. Elizabeth Gorman is at eg5n@virginia.edu. (Summary available here.)

Mothers in ‘Good’ and ‘Bad; Part-time Jobs: Different Problems, Same Results” by Gretchen Webber and Christine Williams.  Gender & Society, December 2008; vol. 22, 6: pp. 752-777.

Transitions to Parenthood: Work-Family Policies, Gender, and the Couple Context” by Susan G. Singley and Kathryn Hynes. Gender & Society, June 2005; vol. 19, 3: pp. 376-397.