Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

Why nice guys (and all women) finish last

If you can’t work less, learn to lie better

June 19, 2015 2:00AM ET

Years ago, I became friends with a male coworker. We were both “creatives” in a corporate environment, and we were equally unhappy with our jobs. My solution was to work harder in hopes of being promoted. His was to show up for and leave work whenever he wanted and to wait longer to reply to emails to give the impression that he was busier than he actually was.

I was tempted to imitate his behavior, but didn’t, partly because I thought it was wrong and partly because I suspected I wouldn’t get away with it. He was promoted within a year and a half; it took me nearly four years to advance to the level he attained in that time. Back then I was baffled. But it all started to make sense when I came across a recent study suggesting that certain men in high-paying corporate jobs advance further than women — and more candid men — by misleading their employers about how many hours they are working. What I gleaned from this study — that men can much more easily get away with this type of behavior than women — was both familiar and infuriating.

A number of successful men interviewed for this study worked the 40-50-hour workweeks they preferred while leading their employers to believe they were putting in 60-80 hours per week. Men who attempted to balance their work, pleasure, and family obligations more openly by applying for a formal reduction in work hours or requesting access to the same types of accommodations routinely offered to women employees, were, according to the study’s author, business professor Erin Reid, “treated very differently from the men who managed to pass [as employees who work long hours]: they were marginalized and penalized” and passed over for promotions.

These men were penalized “in the same ways that women who reveal work-family conflict have long been,” Reid writes.

Men who ask for time off or reduce their work hours, especially to spend time with family, face a social and professional stigma women do not. Women who take time off may not be treated as social pariahs, but they are punished professionally in the long run. And women who simply take the time they need without seeking formal accommodation are seen as less committed to their work.

The double standard plays out in different ways. According to an unpublished study by Mallika Thomas, who holds a doctorate from Cornell University, women are 5 percent more likely to remain employed but 8 percent less likely to get promotions than they were before the Family and Medical Leave Act became law. And, as Claire Cain Miller stated in a recent New York Times piece, family-friendly policies “can end up discouraging employers from hiring women in the first place, because they fear women will leave for long periods or use expensive benefits.” (Never mind that becoming a mother could actually make a woman a better employee.)

Two of Reid’s most salient conclusions are these: It’s tempting simply to pretend you’re working longer hours than you are, since that’s what companies seem to value, and doing so “is certainly less costly” than being open and honest with your boss. Yet this is a strategy that serves men far better than women, who are typically under greater scrutiny at work and are assumed to be fulfilling child-care obligations when they leave the office early. Men who leave the office early are assumed to be on their way to a client meeting or other work-related event.

Lying to employers who treat workers badly may be contrary to workplace ethics, but it is hardly immoral.

Even when men and women want the same things (satisfaction at work and at home) and make the same choices in order to get them (to work fewer hours), they are judged differently. Women shouldn’t be punished for taking advantage of humane leave policies and benefits like part-time work options — and neither should any man who wants to do the same.

Gender dynamics aside, the fact that lying about your hours can be a net benefit signals a detrimental-to-employees shift in the way Americans work. A primary advantage of having a white-collar job used to be that you worked fewer hours, not more. But as James Surowiecki wrote in The New Yorker last year, “Thirty years ago, the best-paid workers in the U.S. were much less likely to work long days than low-paid workers were. By 2006, the best paid were twice as likely to work long hours as the poorly paid, and the trend seems to be accelerating … Overwork has become a credential of prosperity.”

Companies could solve this problem by making it clear that they expect their employees to work only the hours they are contractually obligated to — and, in cases where work hours are unlimited, requiring employees to take a certain amount of time off.

Most of them don’t want to do this because they’re afraid of losing money, even when there is a clear social cost to spending too many hours in the office — take, for example, the number of young male bankers who have died in recent years of physical conditions or suspected suicide triggered by overwork, or the 88 percent of working parents who suffer from stress-related health problems, or the number of articles offering advice to lonely partnered people whose partners are never available. But unless or until someone can prove that companies do not profit from wringing every last drop of labor from their workers — or unless we impose serious penalties for compelling people to work this way — the culture is unlikely to change. 

Where does this leave people in high-pressure, highly paid jobs who would still like to enjoy life outside of their cubicles?

If you’re a man, the answer is simple: walk out that door confidently at 5 p.m.

If you’re a woman, don’t have kids—or pretend you don’t have kids.

It’s likely to be less time-consuming and less damaging to your career to lie by omission than to out yourself as a person with a time-sucking family and/or interests outside of work. Lying to employers who treat workers badly may be contrary to workplace ethics, but it is hardly immoral.

Raina Lipsitz writes about feminism, politics and pop culture. Her work has appeared in TheAtlantic.com, Kirkus Reviews, McSweeney’s, Nerve.com, Ploughshares, Salon.com and xoJane, among others. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter