I’ve been thinking a lot about the power and danger of assumptions this week.
Last week, I went out to dinner and almost every table was packed tightly with families. Someone I was eating with jokingly commented, “must be divorced dads night here!” I hadn’t realized that most tables were just a dad and kids, but he was right. I completely disagree with his assessment though.There are a million reasons a dad might be eating alone with his kids – divorce is of course one of them, but it’s just that, one reason on a long list. It highlighted again how deeply ingrained our assumptions on child rearing, work, and gender are.
In fact, these assumptions are so ingrained that many of us struggle to change them, even when presented with data to the contrary.
Robin Ely and Irene Padavic illustrate just how detrimental that can be to mothers and women in their recent article on gender equality, “What’s really holding women back?” The entire piece is well worth reading. There are many important conclusions, but one in particular stands out.
The team was charged with determining why there weren’t more women at the top of this company. They closely examined 18 months worth of interviews and data and found two results at odds with each other. The first was that a pervasive culture of overwork was at the core of the gender inequality in this firm and society at large. The second was that no one was willing to admit it.
Throughout their study, across genders and at all levels of seniority, employees continued to believe that demands at home were what prevented women from reaching more senior roles. They call this the work/life narrative. Belief in the work/life narrative was deeply entrenched. So much so that the management team, the very people paying to get a solution, could not change their assumptions when presented with other data. They refused to believe interviews and data that they had requested and paid for. Of their own employees.
Why is it that we cling so strongly to certain assumptions? How do some assumptions become so deeply entrenched that they’re taken as truth? Is it an unwillingness to change or is it because long-standing assumptions – that women cannot, in fact, have it all and must always split time at home and work – deep down give us some comfort in their familiarity? In this case, these assumptions held true across men and women and the impact was damaging.
How do some assumptions become so pervasive? What assumptions are each of us carrying around about women and work? And more importantly, how do we change them?