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Faculty Insights

WSB’s Chia-Jung Tsay Discusses Gendered Time Surveillance at Harvard Business School Event

By Betsy Lundgren

June 5, 2023

A portrait of Professor Chia-Jung Tsay.
WSB's Chia-Jung Tsay. Photo by Paul L. Newby II

It’s 2:30 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon. You walk to a colleague’s office only to find the desk empty. You cannot locate this colleague in any conference rooms or elsewhere on the office floor.

Is your first assumption that this colleague must be at an off-site meeting with a client? Or that this colleague had to leave early to pick up a child from school?

Well, your assumption likely depends on whether this colleague is a man or a woman.

That’s according to new research from Chia-Jung Tsay, associate professor of management and human resources and the Bruce and Janice Ellig Professor in Management at the Wisconsin School of Business. Tsay recently shared this research at a virtual event, Women at Work, hosted by Harvard Business School. She spoke on a panel about gender research alongside Michelle Duguid of the Cornell Johnson Graduate School of Management and Alexandra Feldberg of Harvard Business School.

A screenshot of Professor Chia-Jung Tsay speaking on a research panel with three other women experts.
Tsay speaks on a panel about gender research as part of Harvard Business Review’s Women at Work virtual event.

Tsay’s research focuses on the monitoring of other people’s time at work, a behavior she labels time surveillance: the everyday practice of noticing and making attributions about others’ time use at work. Tsay and co-author Erin Reid of McMaster University were curious to learn if time surveillance is gendered—whether women are more vulnerable than men to certain assumptions about how they spend their time during the workday. They explored that premise through a series of surveys and experiments that asked participants to assess workplace scenarios that included both female and male absences.

“Those who read about the female employee were much more likely to notice the absence from the office,” Tsay shared during the panel discussion. “Further, they were more likely to make the attribution that those absences were due to family or personal reasons and clearly not for work activities. We also found that this type of noticing and assuming didn’t play out in the same way for the male employee.”

Tsay tested these findings in a range of contexts, with both novices and industry experts from a range of fields. She found that gendered time surveillance occurred across different contexts. The one variable Tsay identified that could disrupt gendered time surveillance was the gender makeup of the occupation. In occupations that are male-dominated or gender-balanced, female employees tended to have their absences noticed more and attributed to non-work reasons. In female-dominated occupations, the trend actually reversed, such that male employee absences were noticed more and attributed to non-work reasons.

“We may consider focusing on less ambiguous ways of measuring valued output and performance, rather than analyzing how time is spent.”

Chia-Jung Tsay

Given the rise in virtual work environments, Tsay also wanted to test whether gendered time surveillance extends beyond the in-person, physical office space.

“Over the last couple of years, it has become even more apparent that we can introduce more flexibility to professional workspaces and still maintain productivity,” Tsay said. “But, there seems to still be pushback and quite a bit of skepticism about virtual work. ‘These employees who are working remotely, are they really doing work?’ We started speculating whether women might be particularly vulnerable to these types of suspicions.”

According to the research, it seems they are. Just as in physical offices, Tsay says that female employees working remotely are “less likely to get the benefit of the doubt.”  

But, Tsay also sees opportunity and solutions for combatting these gendered assumptions. One starting point is to reduce ambiguity.

In another line of research, Tsay tested different types of away messages, ranging from the very ambiguous to the highly detailed. She found that participants’ assumptions tended to diminish when provided with more clarity about what an employee was doing.

Tsay says it’s important to understand the motivations behind why managers and colleagues engage in time surveillance. People might engage in this behavior from a sense of social comparison or to gauge equity across colleagues, assessing whether everyone is working hard enough and long enough. But Tsay encourages other ways of measuring success.

“We may consider focusing on less ambiguous ways of measuring valued output and performance, rather than analyzing how time is spent,” she said.

Tsay also suggests that, more broadly, we should normalize that it’s okay for employees to be working and not be reachable, or to be working in different locations and on different timelines than other people.

“The hope is that as we normalize different and more flexible work styles, we will diminish the likelihood that people will engage in this type of surveillance behavior.”