My Q and A With Work and Family Expert Joan Williams on When Work Becomes a Masculinity Contest

05/13/2015 04:27 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2016

Joan C. Williams is an expert on matters of work and family and is a Distinguished Professor of Law at UC Hastings College of the Law. In our conversation she shared her insights on the origins of our culture of sleep one-upmanship, how that culture differs for men and women and how periodically disengaging from work can boost your creativity and efficiency.

You have talked about workplaces as "gender factories." Describe what you mean by this term.

We think of workplaces as producing apps or widgets, but they also are key sites where people show that they are men to be reckoned with. Overwork (which demographers define as working more than 50 hours a week) is rampant among college-educated men in the U.S.: Thirty-eight percent work more than 50 hours a week, which contributes to lack of sleep as voracious jobs devour every other part of people's lives. Think of tech entrepreneurs sleeping under their workstations in SOMA, of lions of finance pulling all-nighters in Wall Street, of surgeons scoffing that they cannot possibly abide by the rule limiting surgical residents to only 80-hour workweeks.

In each case, extreme jobs are a way of measuring masculinity without a ruler: "He's a real man; he works 90-hour weeks. He's a slacker; he works 50 hours a week," to quote a Silicon Valley engineer in a study by Marianne Cooper. Extreme hours become a way men compete to establish whose is bigger; are we really talking about schedules? Kate Kellogg's important study of surgeons, Challenging Operations, documents the price we pay in terms of efficiency when work becomes a masculinity contest: Exhausted surgeons make more mistakes; surgeons who "live for the operating room" (manly) are scornful of doing the office follow-up (for wusses); surgeons miss work as they get divorced over and over again; surgeons fail to delegate in an efficient manner because no one wants to lose face by going home.

What about women? Women typically have a fragile hold in these kinds of workplaces and often get the message that the only way they can succeed is by being "one of the guys," including proving themselves by working ever harder than the men. One study by Stephen Benard and Shelley Correll of highly competent and committed mothers found that women -- not men but women -- tended to dislike them and hold them to higher performance standards. Women who have paid a high price at work for living up the their ideals of motherhood dislike the committed and competent mothers whose very existence raises the question of whether career sacrifices were actually necessary in order to be a good mother.

Cherished identities are enacted on the job, which creates intense resistance to demands to reorganize work to allow for more sleep and greater work-life balance. Individuals whose identities have been forged on the anvils of overwork find themselves deeply threatened by demands for change; for what reason, then, did they miss their children's childhoods and warp their lives with overwork?

If certain corporate cultures promote overwork and sleep deprivation as the norm, how can we get a healthy amount of sleep and still be competitive in our jobs?

Before I had kids, I worked 12 to 14 hours a day. Once I had kids, I couldn't, so I became a lot more efficient. For those of us lucky enough to do creative work, the rhythm of having to break away from work and attend to other parts of our lives allows us to disengage and process a problem at the back of our mind -- much more effective, often, than obsessing without a break. Brigid Schulte's Overwhelmed provides ample evidence that your mind literally works better if you're rested and not constantly distracted by multitasking. A culture of overwork often leads to a failure to delegate, too; when you have to leave, you have to think more analytically about how to build a team to accomplish a goal, assembling specific skills sets rather than just doing everything yourself. And, of course, sleeplessness impedes efficiency. You can run on adrenaline for a while, but then you crash.

So give yourself the room to disengage from work; I strongly suspect you'll find yourself more efficient. In addition, if you're in a workplace that highly values face time, take a week to analyze when it's politically important to be there, at the office, and arrange your schedule so that you take time off at other times where your absence will be less salient.

What advice would you give to companies to shift their cultures from sleep deprivation to sleep promotion?

My advice to companies with intense, long-hours cultures is to do an internal study to see whether people's efficiency is being impeded. For example, is there a failure to delegate because people lose face if they finish their work?

How have our notions of sleep taken on a gender breakdown?

A fascinating history book, Dangerously Sleepy, traces how the need for sleep came to be associated with weakness, and going without sleep came to be seen as a sign of strength, in the United States. Overwork also has become a way to signal class status: "I am slammed" is a way of saying, "I am important." This represents a sharp shift from a prior era when having leisure was a "class act" -- a way of enacting class status -- as in "He works bankers' hours." We have a weird reversal in the U.S., where the elite work very long hours while the poor typically can't get even 40 hours a week of work.

The exception is mothers: Only 9 percent of American mothers, and 14 percent of college-educated ones, work over 50 hours a week. It's fascinating that just as women began to enter high-status professional jobs, suddenly overwork suddenly began to command a wage premium. The important work of Youngjoo Cha and her colleagues found no wage premium in the 1960s but such a large overwork wage premium today that the progress women have made in closing the wage gap has been all but washed out. If I were a purveyor of conspiracy theories...