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Organizational Culture

Women, men, and time: How Lotte Bailyn reframed workplace practices

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It took a pandemic for U.S. employers to realize that many of their workers could not only get their jobs done outside the office but be happier and more productive while doing them.

MIT Sloan’s  knew this 30 years ago, as a pioneering researcher who studied the relationship between managerial practices and their demands on employees’ personal lives. A social psychologist and emeritus professor with the school’s Work and Organizational Studies group, Bailyn helped coin the term “dual agenda” to describe an organizational action plan that makes it easier for employees to integrate their work lives with their personal lives and enhance their work at the same time.

“It’s based on the assumption that most practices in organizations have been there forever and they’re taken for granted,” Bailyn said in a recent interview. “But lots of things have changed in the world of work, and those practices may in fact not only be hurting employees but may no longer be very effective.”

Bailyn’s brilliance, said MIT Sloan Work and Organization Studies professor  lies in her ability to hold up a mirror to organizations, thus spurring them to examine their institutionalized expectations and ask important questions about the consequences of those old assumptions.

“She helps people see that there’s a loss in continuing with the status quo. There’s a cost to the status quo in terms of who advances and what happens to women’s careers and to the careers of people with caretaking responsibilities — and there’s a real cost for the firm,” said Kelly, co-director of the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research, where Bailyn is also an affiliated faculty member.

What follows are highlights from an interview in which Bailyn discussed the importance of the dual agenda and gender equity at work and at home, plus excerpts from her research and reflections from some of her current contemporaries on her legacy and contributions to work and organization studies.

Dual-agenda work

In 1993, Bailyn published “Breaking the Mold: Women, Men, and Time in the New Corporate World,” a foundational book on how organizations create problems that impede their employees’ ability to integrate work and family responsibilities.

The book was the forerunner to the dual agenda concept and the workplace practice approach devised by her research group to effect organizational change to alleviate this issue. Many of these results are outlined in the book Beyond Work-Family Balance: Advancing Gender Equity and Workplace Performance,” co-authored with Rhona Rapoport, Joyce K. Fletcher, and Bettye H. Pruitt. Their work paved the way for organizations to change their structures and practices to allow workers to more easily take care of their outside responsibilities without negatively affecting their work. Their key finding was that these changes could actually increase the effectiveness of work.

Writing in a 2003 briefing, Bailyn and Fletcher outlined four goals of the dual agenda approach to change:

  1. To identify work practices that have implications for equity and effectiveness.
  2. To make their costs and consequences visible.
  3. To identify leverage points for “small wins” change that would benefit both the people who are doing the work and the work itself.
  4. To help organizations implement those changes.

For example, in one company Bailyn’s team worked with, a group of financial analysts were struggling with requests from a vice president. They were working overtime to create elaborate presentations, but the vice president needed only quick calculations and had no use for the extra information. Working with the analysts, Bailyn’s team created a sheet where the vice president could indicate the information that was needed so the analysts would not have to put in unnecessary overtime. While that solution might have been obvious after the fact, Bailyn said, it took a dual agenda lens to identify this “easy” solution.

“It’s just the truth of what dual agenda is: We’re smart, we want to be successful at work, and we also care about other things,” said Jessica DeGroot, founder and president of ThirdPath Institute, a nonprofit that helps parents redesign work and family using the dual agenda. “Our minds will come up with solutions if we’re encouraged to do so and we have the time and energy.”

Gender equity at work and home

Dovetailing with her research on work-family integration, Bailyn put sustained attention on issues of gender equity within and outside of the workplace. Particularly in the U.S., a major contributor to that imbalance is the way society values economic work and caretaking work.

“The work world is a very masculine world … and the domestic sphere is very gender-feminine,” Bailyn said. “Productive economic work is seen as an accomplishment, is highly valued by society, is well compensated, and is typically assumed to be best done by men. Productive care work is seen as coming naturally to women. It’s undervalued and under-compensated.”

Importantly, Bailyn’s work reframed the imbalance from a gendered perspective to a structural one. When Bailyn began conducting research 40 years ago, and until recently, stakeholder conversations about advancing gender equity focused almost exclusively on providing leadership programs for women, Kelly said. While those leadership programs can be helpful, at their heart is the belief that women lack these additional skills and thus are the ones that need fixing.

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“Lotte was saying, ‘Fix the organization; address these structures that crowd some people out.’ That is a different orientation, and it’s a really important one,” Kelly said. “It’s not just about women or mothers specifically; it’s about making sure the organization is set up to do what it needs to do, in a way that welcomes the talents and the contributions of everyone possible.”

In the early 1990s, Bailyn led a research group that was embedded in different divisions of Xerox. One of those divisions was engineering, explained Deborah Kolb, PhD ’81, professor emerita at Simmons University, who co-led the research team and is currently co-director of the Negotiations in the Workplace Project at Harvard Law School.

At one point, a female engineer raised the issue of not being able to attend late-day meetings because she had responsibilities at home. The engineer’s manager told her that it was OK to miss the meeting to take care of her family. But the message the engineer received was “My ideas don’t matter,” Kolb said.

“It was moving from looking at work and personal life as individual issues to trying to understand how you could change things at work to make it better for people to manage work and personal life better,” Kolb said of Bailyn’s research. “It was about connecting people’s lives to work.”

Carrying the torch for gender and work redesign research

One unexpected catalyst in the reevaluation of the link between work and home was the COVID-19 pandemic. It allowed more people to recognize that there are different ways of working, and also how to be more forthright about their values and preferences in how they integrate work with their lives, Kelly said.

“I think that the beacon Lotte’s work has shined is highly relevant, and I think organizations still have something to learn about really thinking through ‘How do we do this in a way that meets the company’s needs and advances gender equity and addresses people’s concerns about their well-being and their family life?’” said Kelly, who is one of the researchers helping organizations weigh those work-life needs today.

Others carrying on this work include Kolb, co-founder of the Center for Gender and Organizations at Simmons University; Robin Ely, founder and chair of the Race, Gender & Equity Initiative at Harvard Business School; and Sarah Kaplan, PhD ’04, founding director of the Institute for Gender and the Economy at the University of Toronto. Additionally, two PhD students on Bailyn’s Xerox research team wrote dissertations on their work and turned them into books: Fletchers’ “Disappearing Acts: Gender, Power, and Relational Practice at Work,” and Leslie Perlow’s “Finding Time: How Corporations, Individuals, and Families Can Benefit From New Work Practices.”

“Though change is slow,” Bailyn said, “the work goes on.”

For more info Meredith Somers News Writer (617) 715-4216