Fw: Women at Work: Our Complicated Relationship with Screens

Hi all, this was an interesting newsletter from a Harvard Business Review list I am on. I was reminded of some of the discussions we had in our monthly calls about work-life balance, and adding a gender lens to the new “work from home” era was insightful.

I am forwarding this from my email inbox to the forum, so I am not exactly sure how this will appear on Discourse, but I hope it forwards nicely!

Spoiler alert, the email content was completely scrubbed. I copy-pasted it below:

From Amy Gallo, Contributing Editor, HBR

I spend a lot of my day looking at a screen. This has been true since I started working mostly remotely in 2002. Without face-to-face interactions that in-person work warrants, I’m often nose down in my laptop or phone.

My daughter, who is 14, has seen me in this position throughout her life. In fact, when she was four years old, I was driving her and her friend to preschool, listening to their banter in the back seat, when her friend proclaimed that he one day wanted to be a “football star.” My daughter responded that when she grew up, she was going to “send emails” like her mom. I was conflicted. Surely that’s not what I do all day?! Or is it? And surely she’ll want more from her life than that! But I reminded myself that she was four, and in time she’d discover other options.

Having my daughter see me working in our home — especially in a profession that brings me fulfillment and joy — is something I view as an accomplishment. In our first episode of this season, our guest Shilpa Bhandarkar, the CEO of the tech venture arm of a law firm, talked about the importance of having her two daughters observe her job up close during the pandemic, how she and her husband were aware that their children were picking up messages about women and work. Our other guest on the episode, Bridget O’Brien, a marketing director who is expecting her first child, said she hopes to establish an awareness with her daughter that “Mommy has work timelines and deliverables.”

As much as I’m proud of the work my daughter sees me do, I also worry about the downside of her seeing me on my devices so much. I am increasingly aware that screen time (in particular, social media use) is linked to rising rates of anxiety and depression among adolescent girls. (The Facebook whistleblower news has highlighted the threat to their mental health.)

I got to thinking about my relationship with technology. Why do I feel so tethered to my phone and laptop? And does being a woman have anything to do with it?

Most studies and surveys don’t show much variation across gender in screen use. People of all genders are on their devices a lot and were more so during the pandemic. What varies is the impact of that screen time. Women reported higher levels of depression and anxiety during the pandemic, leading some researchers to believe there is a correlation (though not necessarily causation) between device use and these rising numbers. HBR recently published research showing that women reported higher levels of Zoom fatigue, presumably because of the increased pressure to look “professional” on camera.

I reached out to Catherine Price, author of How to Break Up with Your Phone , to ask about the gendered aspects of “always on” culture and how gender stereotypes may play into the persistent need to be available. We discussed two concepts that resonated with me in terms of why, despite knowing the many downsides of time spent on screens, I can’t seem to put my phone down.

The first is a concept we’ve talked about on the show before: role overload , or the extent to which a person feels overwhelmed by her total responsibilities. As Catherine explained it, “One thing I’ve noticed that contributes to women’s difficulty in stepping away from their phones is that we’re doing a lot of emotional and mental work for the family. Women are using their phones for a lot of different purposes. So when they’re at work, they’re also managing their households; and when they’re at home, they’re still checking in with work.” My phone allows me to do multiple roles — colleague, business owner, mother, wife, daughter — simultaneously. I can be “working” but also texting with my daughter about how she’s getting home from school. I can be watching TV with my family while also answering a colleague’s urgent Slack message. (Whether I’m successfully filling those roles while multitasking is another issue altogether.)

The second concept that plays into my relationship with my phone is the gender stereotypes about women needing to care for the collective and the resulting pressure many of us feel to be team players and conscientious and cooperative colleagues. We know from research that women tend to carry more of the burden when organizations experience collaboration overload, and there are a trove of studies that show we expect women to be communal and nurturing, even at work. These pressures and expectations feed into a “nefarious, self-reinforcing cycle” for many women, Price said, where “we get anxious about work, a common anxiety trigger, so we have an emotional stress response that likely involves the release of cortisol and that feels really uncomfortable. To alleviate that stress and anxiety, we check our phones. And what do we find there? We find a dopamine trigger, and then that reinforces the idea that checking our phones is worth doing again and again.”

Price has helpful advice: one way to break this cycle is to set communication norms with your team and your manager — when do you actually need to be available, how should people reach out if there’s an emergency outside of work hours, for example — boundaries we need to be intentional about setting. You might discuss on your team “what’s OK” to do, making explicit the unwritten rules, like not checking Slack or email after you’ve signed off for the day.

Years ago Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow sounded the alarm about a similar cycle of always being “on”:

  • … as I discovered in my research, accepting the pressure to be “on” — usually stemming from some seemingly legitimate reason, such as requests from clients or customers or teammates in different time zones — in turn makes us accommodate the pressure even more. We begin adjusting to such demands, adapting the technology we use, altering our daily schedules, the way we work, even the way we live our lives and interact with our family and friends, to be better able to meet the increased demands on our time. Once our colleagues experience our increased responsiveness, their requests on our time expand. Already “on,” we accept these increased demands, while those who don’t risk being evaluated as “less committed” to their work.
  • I call this the “cycle of responsiveness” — teammates, superiors, and subordinates continue to make more requests, and the conscientious employee in us is inclined to respond to these marginal increases in demands, while our expectations of each other (and ourselves) continue to rise.

Perlow wrote that in 2012, long before the pandemic, which, for me, has only worsened those dynamics. The longer workdays from home and increase in asynchronous communication has intensified the feeling that I need to be responsive. If you feel the same, you might find this research-based article with tips for how to manage that “always on” feeling helpful.

I want my daughter to see me working, to know the important role that my profession plays in my life. But now that she’s a teenager — and considers herself an official “hypocrisy detector” — she loves to point out that while I tell her to spend less time on her phone, I’m looking at a screen way more than she is. So I’m trying to sort out when my devices are helping me and when I’m using work as an excuse to pick up my phone for that anxiety-soothing dopamine burst.

How are you managing your relationship with screens? Is yours equally complex? What are you thinking about when modeling screen use to family members, direct reports, or anyone you’re trying to have a positive influence on?

We’re reaching the halfway point in our podcast season, and we wanted to check in with you. What issues would you like us to cover in an upcoming episode? What guidance are you looking for that’ll help you move forward in your career? Let us know: womenatwork@hbr.org.

As always, thanks for listening and for reading, Amy

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