Rewriting the Old Rules

Women are about to outnumber men in the nation’s law schools, a development heralding yet another milestone for women and a foreshadowing of great cultural change in the way law is practiced in this country. There can be no doubt about the former. The latter may not be so easy.

Women have been breaking through glass ceilings in the workplace for more than 30 years, and with each new achievement (the first woman to run for national office, to pilot the space shuttle, to serve as attorney general), society has changed for the better. Young girls now have role models in fields ranging from politics to the sciences to professional sports. Can there be any doubt that historians will one day agree that the civil rights movement and the women’s movement were among the transforming events of the 20th century?


What these historians will say about the impact of women in the workforce, however, remains to be seen. At the moment, it would be fair to argue that women have not changed the American workplace as much as the workplace has changed women.

Take law, for example. Even with women pouring into law firms across the country, the macho culture of the partner track remains undisturbed. Young men and women still are obliged to perform high-end penal servitude if they wish to become partners at a white-shoe, big-city law firm. Yes, they get paid startling amounts of moneyfirst-year associates in New York during the recently departed boom were commanding salaries approaching six figuresbut they are expected to work absurd hours. It is the law culture’s equivalent of boot camp, except that the military puts its new recruits through only a few months of terror, while the fresh-faced associate can expect to spend his or her 20’s living and breathing for the firm and the firm alone. At the end, of course, there are no guarantees. Those long hours and work-filled weekends may be for naught, at which time an associate had best look for work elsewhere.

Not to make any sweeping generalizations, but only a man could have come up with so ruthless a scheme.

We can be grateful that some law firms have begun to concede that their associates are entitled to a life outside the office and, under pressure from women, have adopted measures like flex-time and part-time work. For the most part, however, the remorseless, endless paper chase remains a signature part of big-time law’s partner-track culture.

It isn’t only law, however, that remains in the thrall of the otherwise discredited macho ethic. In fact, in nearly every profession, in every factory, workers are expected to think of their lives and their jobs as one, to the detriment of family, friends, outside interests and other small pleasures.

Despite the historic entry of millions of women into the workforce, the workplace rules and traditions that men enforce and celebrate have not been repealed. The hoary custom of measuring one’s dedication, value and, yes, toughness by the number of hours logged per week hasn’t changed. And managers still shake their heads disapprovingly when, in the phrase of one former colleague, a clockwatcher begins packing up at 5 p.m. The clockwatcher might have children who need help with homework, or an aged parent to care for, or an anniversary to celebrate. Under the rules of the macho workplace, however, those who let such considerations get in the way of all work, all the time, are considered slackers.

The global marketplace and the technological revolution have made matters worse for those trying to balance their work lives with real life. For millions of workers, there is no escape from professional obligations. I know men and women who feel obliged to bring along their laptop computers when they are on vacationa concept, incidentally, that is beginning to be thought of as yet another outdated ritual from the industrial age. I’ve been out to dinner with men and women who keep their cell phones ready on the table, just in case the boss (and the boss is not always a male) wants to reach them.

Recent data indicate that the culture of overwork is pervasive in American society. A survey conducted by the National Sleep Association found that 40 percent of the 1,004 adults polled said they worked longer hours than they did five years ago. The average work week, according to the poll, was 46 hours, but 38 percent said they worked 50 hours or more a week. And then there are those, like the well-dressed fellow who sat next to me on the commuter train the other day, who keep working even when they’re home. My seatmate put aside his work-related reading material to call his wife (from his cell phone) to make sure everybody at home knew he needed to use the family computer after dinner. Something to do with developments in the Asian markets.

Is it sexist to suggest that womenat least most women I knowhave a far saner perspective on the balance between work and life? I hope not. I certainly believe it’s true.

For the time being, women probably have little choice but to adhere to the old rules written by corporate America’s macho men. But as more women gain power in corporate America, they will have a chance to rewrite the old rules and abolish the macho-overwork ethic for good.

Or so this macho-challenged male hopes.

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