In this episode, our guest is Ellen Ernst Kossek, an internationally recognized thought-leader on work-life boundary management, gender and organizational culture. To know more about the work of Professor Kossek, or get a copy of her most recent book, Creating Gender-Inclusive Organizations, visit her website here.
Agnes Uhereczky: Hi Ellen, welcome to the show. The apropos of our conversation is twofold. One is, of course, all your work on boundary management and work-life conflict which has been thrust in the limelight with the pandemic. Second, we wanted to have you on the podcast because a great book came out last year, Creating Gender-Inclusive Organizations: Lessons from Research and Practice, which has been edited by you and Kyung Hee Lee. It is the essays and presentations from a 2016 conference that was held at Purdue University's Krannert School of Management where you work. The book is a great combination of research and practice and that is what the podcast is for and that is why these books are so important because there is still this gap, right between books, literature and research but then the policies the actual practices that happen at employers' workplaces that have an impact on achieving diversity and inclusion. So, I wanted to ask you from your experience having your work in academia but also your practice: why do you think there is still this gap? Why doesn't this knowledge get somehow trickled down into the organisational practices?
Ellen Ernst Kossek: Well, I think companies want to adapt their workplaces to be more gender-inclusive and interested in racial and ethnic equality. The problem is these policies have been set up decades ago. These structures, in some ways, are almost institutionalizing past discrimination. And so even if you adopt new policies, and many of these leaders have the same policies on paper, they are hiring the same consultants. But they are having trouble either shifting their cultures to adapt to the new practices, or they have not been able to look at how they have embedded institutionalized implicit biased discriminatory practices. These old practices get in the way of what is a leader or where you have to be in your career to be promoted, for example, for men leaders 2 or 3 positions in. All the while, for many women 2 or 3 positions in their careers they might be when they are having a first or second child and they are just done overloaded because what's expected is the long hour culture before that level is not able to be sustained with the current increase in non-work.
Another example is that even single women have different family structures than some of the c-suite men, or their peers, who, most likely, have a partner at home to help with domestic work or social support and career. And, that maybe some of the successful women have felt they had to give up some of the family life or even having a long term relationship to get ahead. So, these are the implicit societal biases structures that are difficult to look out for no matter how good your policies look on paper.
Agnes Uhereczky: We tend to group these target groups of these policies together as women or ethnic minorities, or migrants or the LGBTQI+ community. But there are still so many nuances. These policies somehow I feel may not go granular enough into individual options for people to have a choice from a set of policies or services or supports that are going to be working for them as individuals. I think that just having these blankets and one size fits all policies may not work for everyone. What do you think of this pressure or burden of trying to be more individualized in their approach to implementing these policies?
Ellen Ernst Kossek: Yes, I agree very much. I have written a lot about customizing work and workloads. Also, I have an article, which I co-wrote with Dr. Brenda Lautsch of Simon Fraser University, in the Journal of the European Work and Organisational Psychology about this idea that we almost need to customize or have what a great thought leader named, Denise Brosseau, called IDEAL. It is the idea that everybody wants an individualized deal. In the past, people would say: “Well, that's unfair. You are giving somebody a mentor and I did not get one.” So you do have to have processes that give everybody procedures the same way to say “I would like access to this resource or support” but within that, as you alluded to you need to customize it to support people's different way of working. So, for example, now companies, post-COVID, have a real dilemma because many of them were attracted to teleworking and putting in distance policies from the headquarters that you could telework but you couldn't move beyond say 75 miles from the headquarter offices. Now, that may not be such a great idea because they have learned that you can get talent more remotely almost anywhere but you just have to then figure out other ways to create culture. So, a blanket policy saying you must live within a certain specified mile or kilometre may help you lose talent. If you can not get beyond these edicts that may not be practical to what you are beginning to learn to be more flexible in cultures and how you manage and support talent.
Agnes Uhereczky: What are some other key success factors from your experience for organisations that wish to create inclusive climates at the team or workers levels to track and retain a diverse workforce?
Ellen Ernst Kossek: I think you have to start with having sufficient numbers of people from different backgrounds. If you can't see it, you can't be it. And so if you are the only working mother, somebody with an infant trying to stay in the labour force, or if you are the only person of colour, women of colour, you are going - what we have learned long ago from a thought leader Rosabeth Moss Kanter's book Men and Women in the Corporation - to be viewed as a minority. And this idea of what is a minority or majority has to be shifted in these companies because many people today have dual identities, my work and work-life boundaries.
Many people today are what I would call dual centric. They have a high identity with both non-work identity such as mother, community leader, father, daughter, religious advocate or wanting to be involved in social issues. At the same time, they have high work centricity. Well, the same thing is happening with race and gender. Men don't want to be circumscribed into a very narrow box. Men are becoming more gender flexible. Many fathers want to be involved with care for their children or care for their parents or just have time to be more whole people and live a more balanced life. And the same with race and ethnicity, and I know this is in the US and Europe, there are different rules sometimes in collecting this data. I am doing a national survey right now of all university professors at top research universities called the Carnegie Universities. In designing the survey we have people allowed to pick two different, as many cultural backgrounds as they want. That is the same, I am also in the science of diversity group out of the University of Chicago and we are designing some work with a company that is trying to come up with an equity index with an ultimate software which is now owned by Chronos. If you measure gender or diversity you have to give people more choices.
Now, back to what companies should do. I think you have to start with getting a critical mass of people in the door as you are trying to change your culture. Because it is very difficult to shift to a more heterogeneous or different diverse way of thinking about talent if all you have are similar homogeneous management structures and people. You have to start with bringing people in that are different but not just one or two that disturbs and drabs. Cluster hiring across functions, don't just put everybody in human resources, as much as I love HR, and to teach that you have to put them in line management in other positions and have a peer mentoring and support system. The people make the place - as an old researcher named Ben Schneider used to say. So, the people bringing in them will help shift the culture if they are given the motivation to stay and listen to the help begin to change the structures cascading up in the organisation.
I think we have to move beyond thinking of short term gains and think more about what kind of society and what kind of normative values we want for the workplace we want to be. I think that has more lasting power than the CEOs and the top management send that message.
Agnes Uhereczky: I also wanted to discuss with you today the topic of boundary management and linking it a little bit to the whole idea of gender-inclusive organisations. We have seen all the numbers of the many many women who decided to leave work altogether because they just could not manage to work at home but also taking care of smaller kids, or helping older kids with schools and running a household. So, boundary management became finally a much talked about topic. What do you think went wrong in this area that meant that women were just not able to cope? Was it down to lack of support by spouses or line managers, lack of policies or a mix of all of this?
Ellen Ernst Kossek: Thank you so much for asking. This is what we were talking about before the interview. I just did a study for the National Academy of Sciences in the US which are all research scientists in the country with a focus on STEM, science technology engineering math and medicine. What I think was unusual about the pandemic is we finally went to embracing teleworking and home working in a big way for those women that were in professional office jobs. But at the same time, the childcare centres were closed, the schools were closed and went to virtual learning, the housekeepers could not come in, and so a disparate amount of that domestic labour did shift on women. We were in houses where even when spouses were there that were men, or depending on the different relationships even in non-heterosexual couples, there would be traditional gender roles. One study I did showed that 90% of the women felt they were doing more of the housework and the homeschooling than the husbands even when they were there. The husbands had the prime space in the house. One woman worked in the closet in one of our studies, which I thought was ironic.
I do think and I fear that there are pros and cons of the pandemic, and I am worried that we are going to come out of it and focus on things or policies the companies think they have learned that may or may not benefit women. So, yes companies learned that productivity can go up or be maintained in some cases during the pandemic but what happened was this overwork culture and working at the weekends, having Zoom calls started at 6 or 7 o'clock in the nights. Or, something that I hope won't be what we learned where people lack boundary control, something that we have talked about. I measured that telework works when people can still control when and how long they are working and teams come up with good norms such as I get the work done but don't disrespect people's needs for recovery and time off.
The other thing that I am worried about is these hybrid work arrangements that are being proposed as the new flavour of the month. I think it is great that they are going to increase teleworking. I do think it helps with reducing commute, it helps with being able to be at home with school-age children come home, but what is gonna be a downside of it is if people can't control what those days are and for some structures like when childcare centres are open those are gonna be adapted to support part-time telework because many centres require full-time telework and simply isn't enough affordable childcare. And, there was something else that happened with the pandemic. Companies put effort into flexibility and broadband, they didn't put enough effort into changing cultures to support people's ability to do caregiving and breadwinning, and they did not put enough resources even in countries with family leave and public care private and public childcare and eldercare options that fit with this new work design of the pandemic.
Agnes Uhereczky: In your research have you been able to see some data or results whether people were if there was a more positive shift of accepting and being more in favour of teleworking? The survey results I have seen suggest that more people are now in favour of at least part-time teleworking than before the pandemic. And I just wonder whether in the work you have been doing around boundary management preferences, now, more people will be integrators than maybe separators that were before who wanted to have this really big difference between work and their private life. Do you think there is a shift happening also on this at the individual level?
Ellen Ernst Kossek: Great question. I do think that there is more acceptance of telework but I do want to point out that people can work at home and be separators. They can close the door to their office, they can teach their family when I am at a conference and not interrupt me. So, I think to make this shift to telework work-well we are going to have to help people learn how to structure boundaries within their homes. We are gonna have to deal with the increased isolation that we know comes from having teleworkers, and some people may not have a home big enough or family structures say a single parent that would allow them to separate within the home. So, we are gonna need companies to also either increase support for managing boundaries within the home or allow people also to restructure when they work to times when they can have better boundary control.