After writing my recent post “If You Build It, She Will Come,” I was left with a nagging feeling that I was missing something about why women in particular seem so much more inclined than men to leave the “lackluster” workplace environment I describe. I wrote that women may just not be willing to “play a corporate game that has so few rewards.” But why does that seem to matter more to women than to men? Do women have an inherent need to find more meaning in work than men do, and do they leave because that unique need is unfulfilled?
These questions have concerned me because (despite my post) I think that conversations around workplace change need to shift away from gender in order for change to happen more rapidly. But what’s really going on here? Is there something about the way women think about work that is different from the way men do?
I think I’ve found an answer in the research of Dan Ariely, behavioral economist and professor at Duke.
In his TEDx talk “What makes us feel good about our work,” Ariely challenges the conventional economic theory that payment is our only motivator in the workplace. He describes a series of experiments he conducted to determine the impact of meaning on productivity (watch below).
In one experiment, his research team paid people a nominal fee to build LEGO figures, but for each figure built, the payment decreased. At some point, people refused to build any more figures because the payment fell to an unattractive level. But the subjects in one group were asked to build new LEGO figures for each task, while the other group watched their figures be deconstructed and then were asked to rebuild the same figures over and over again. The people building new figures built an average of 11 figures, while those in the group doing the repetitive task built only 7 figures.
In another experiment, Ariely’s team paid people to examine sheets of paper filled with a series of random letters. They were asked to identify all instances of identical letter pairs. For each completed sheet, the payment decreased. But in one group, people were asked to write their names on each paper, and their papers were immediately reviewed by an experimenter and placed in a pile. In another group, papers were nameless, ignored by the experimenters, and placed in a pile. And in a final group, each paper was immediately shredded without a glance. The people whose work was acknowledged worked for twice as long as those whose papers were shredded. And the people whose work was ignored walked away almost as quickly as those whose work was shredded.
Ariely concludes that payment is not a sole motivator: people are more productive when their tasks are more meaningful (even if that meaning isn’t all that profound, and even in situations where they could have been compensated for doing shoddy work). People would rather not work (and not be paid) at all than be paid for poor performance. And yet, because our economic model focuses so heavily on payment, our workplaces fall short in ensuring that workers find the meaning they need to perform at their peak.
Immediately after watching Ariely’s talk, I wondered, what impact does gender have on the outcome? Do women perform differently in these tasks than men; does meaning have a larger impact on their productivity than it does on men? I was fascinated to find that Ariely says no (watch below).
When asked how race, culture, and gender impact outcomes to his behavioral economics research, he explains that there are differences to be found, but that “the way to think about it is, deep down inside we are all the same. But there is a cultural veneer that covers it, and then what happens is that this cultural veneer lets certain behaviors express themselves one way or another. So the culture is incredibly important, but even if we find cultural difference it doesn’t mean that it changes how at the core we make decisions.”
This notion that social context has a significant impact on behavior suggests to me, as we consider issues of work and gender, that our societal norms (in which women are traditionally viewed as caretakers and men as breadwinners) may well be encouraging women to be disproportionately willing to leave the “meaningless” workplace than men. So in that respect, the way work gets done is certainly a women’s issue, and if we want to keep talented women in the workplace then those societal norms will need to change.
But what’s also valuable about Ariely’s claim here is that it suggests that the way that work gets done is not just a women’s issue. When it comes to productivity, meaning doesn’t, in fact, matter more to women than to men. Fundamentally, workers are workers, and gender is irrelevant to the conversation of productivity and efficiency. Work needs to change for all of us, because all of us are lacking what we need in order to fulfill our potential. And it’s not only meaning that matters: Ariely adds “creation”, “challenge”, “ownership”, “identity”, and “pride” to the list of motivators. I would add flexibility as well, not for the sake of balance, but because allowing people control over their time is at the very essence of ownership.
Women are struggling against a failing workplace model in addition to a societal current pulling us towards the home, and that’s likely why we are leading the conversations around the topic of work/life. But in order to truly effect change, we desperately need more men participating in the discussions, which they will be more inclined to do if they acknowledge that work is broken for them too. Using research like Ariely’s to highlight why change matters for all of us is a pivotal step in that direction.