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Many workplaces put pressure on employees to live up to the standards of the “ideal worker” image, where they are unimpeded by family obligations preventing them from being committed to anything outside of the job. But what about men and women who value work-life balance, and make an effort to achieve it? This study examines workers that deviate from the ideal worker image. Through interviews with consultants working at a global consulting firm, the author finds that those who reveal to their superiors their desire to achieve work-life balance are penalized, while those who obscure their efforts to achieve work-life balance (for example, through taking on local clients only, or working from home) face no such penalties. This pattern is gendered: women are more likely than men to reveal efforts to achieve work-life balance, and thus face greater penalties.


While academics and practitioners have long paid attention to the negative consequences of work-family conflict for working mothers, attention has more recently turned to understanding its effects on working fathers.

Findings from the 2008 National Study of the Changing Workforce survey demonstrate that the amount of work-family conflict reported by fathers in dual-earner couples has increased from 35% in 1977 to 60% in 2008.

How, then, are men managing work-family conflict? And does it differ from how women deal with it? The article addresses these questions by examining how people navigate workplace pressure to embrace the “ideal worker” identity.

To examine how people navigate their ideal worker identity, the author conducted interviews with 115 men and women at a U.S.-based global consulting firm, asking them about their work histories, job tasks, work hours, and future goals. While many of the consultants embraced the ideal worker image by working long hours, the author found that many of the interviewees strayed from this image by working less. Those who strayed used one of two strategies: “passing” or “revealing.”

“Passing” was accomplished by those who altered the structure of their work in order to achieve more flexibility in their schedules. For example, consultants cultivated local or nonprofit clients who required less time and commitment than corporate clients. Others worked on internal projects and thereby avoided having to travel often, or worked from home, which helped reduce travel time. These practices allowed the consultants to avoid disclosing their desire to stray from the ideal worker image while also allowing them to “pass” as having embraced it.

“Revealing” was practiced by those who made formal requests for help from their managers or the HR department to restructure their work schedules. These requests were both informal, such as asking to work with local clients only and avoid travel, and formal, such as asking to take parental leave. Because those who revealed made their desire to stray from the ideal worker image visible, they were penalized. Interview respondents who “revealed” describe being passed up for promotions after making requests.

Both men and women were found to stray from the ideal worker image by making time for family and leisure commitments.

However, more female interview participants engaged in “revealing” practices, while more male participants engaged in “passing.” These men, in turn, received higher performance evaluations. By hiding their deviation from the ideal worker image, “passing” men did not experience the negative repercussions in performance evaluations that “revealing” women did.


The study finds that more women revealed their deviation from the ideal worker image by making formal requests for schedule adjustments. This is likely because mothers, in particular, are targeted as beneficiaries of work/family accommodation policies, and are therefore more inclined to take advantage of them. Structuring leave policies specifically for working mothers, however, can backfire if those taking advantage of the policies subsequently face career penalties. Managers and HR personnel can overcome this problem in two ways.

  • First, they can foster a workplace culture that eschews overworking, and values work-life balance for all employees.
  • Second, they can ensure that formal accommodations to work schedules are promoted and made available to all employees, regardless of gender and parenting status. This would simultaneously demonstrate respect for those workers that have demands outside of work that are not child-related, and remove the stigma of the policies as being solely for working mothers.


Embracing, Passing, Revealing, and the Ideal Worker Image: How People Navigate Expected and Experienced Professional Identities


Erin Reid


McMaster University


Organization Science


April 20, 2015


Research brief prepared by

Kim de Laat