An E-mail with an intriguing subject line landed in my in box the other day: "Women must work harder, UVA sociology study says." If this were true, that women did, indeed, have to work harder than their male counterparts, then it would all but confirm the words of Canadian feminist Charlotte Whitton, printed on mugs and magnets around the country: "Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult."
As someone who grew up drinking tea out of a mug that said just that, I was eager to read this study. And after doing so, I'm not sure it does support the phrase.
The paper, published in this month's Gender & Society , relies on self-reported survey data from women in Britain and the United States. Women were asked whether they agreed with the statement "My job requires me to work very hard." In both countries, women were around 22 percent more likely than men to agree with that statement.
Before you dismiss those results for the most obvious reasons—that perhaps women are so tired from their family responsibilities that they simply find their professional work more difficult or that maybe they really do hold more challenging jobs—you should know that the authors explored those possibilities and dismissed them based on the available evidence.
There is, however, another explanation, and it's one that doesn't lead to the conclusion that women must work harder to prove themselves. Rather, it is that women take on more responsibility because they simply have higher standards for themselves or believe the extra work is necessary, when it may not be.
I asked one of the study's authors, Elizabeth Gorman, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, if that—the pressure women put on themselves—could explain the findings. In an E-mail, she explained that it could. "Women may put more pressure on themselves and hold themselves to higher standards, even when it may not be necessary to do so," she writes.
In fact, she has been collecting anecdotes about just that phenomenon. She recently asked both a male and a female colleague for help on a project. The female colleague said that to do a good job, she would need to do three days of research first. The male colleague said he could finish the work in an afternoon.
As for why women would place more pressure on themselves, Gorman suggests several possibilities. First, women may naturally be more diligent and conscientious. But the more likely explanation, she says, is that women have internalized the idea that they must perform very well to get attention or approval, because they have experienced biases against them in the past.
In other words, it may not be that we "must" work harder. But we may force ourselves to anyway, because we think we need to, whether it's actually necessary or not.
Do you think women have to work harder then men? You can post your thoughts in the comments below.
There's more about women's work habits in "The New Mommy Track".