As we enter a new year, I am bringing up an argument that’s decades old. Can women have it all? This question generally gets people fired up. Many will say “of course”, others will say “no way” and still others will argue that women can have it all, just not at the same time. I have often heard it said that it is greedy to want or expect to have it all; that is a successful career, happy marriage and kids. I have always found this to be a fascinating question and discussion that in my experience is exclusively directed at women. Who would even suggest that a man with a full time career is greedy for wanting it all?
A lot has been written about the motherhood penalty and fatherhood premium in the workforce. Men are generally considered more valued and stable if they have a wife and kids while married women with kids are seen as more risky employees who will at best need to make accommodations for their families and at worst will end up exiting the workforce altogether. Of course these concerns are not totally unfounded. Women (and especially women with small children) do tend to exit the workforce at much greater rates than their male counterparts. This does not however suggest that women are clammering to get out of the workforce and stay home as the media would often have us believe. Research overwhelming shows that women in careers tend to carry a significantly larger portion of the domestic responsibilities in a family which contributes to exiting the workforce. This obviously puts unfair pressure not only on women, but also on men. The more women “opt” out of the workforce (or perhaps more accurately, feel forced out), the more men have to commit themselves to it. And so the vicious circle continues. Ultimately, it seems we are still driven by cultural norms where men are expected to primarily bring home the bacon while women fry it up in the pan. Yet, most women are working while also retaining much of the domestic responsibility and this results in role conflict.
Role Conflict is the psychological tension aroused by conflicting role pressure (such as the roles of employee, wife, mother, etc). Role theory suggests that conflict occurs when individuals engage in multiple roles that are incompatible. Theoretically, work and family should not be incompatible, yet they tend to be and it seems much more so for women. There are many theories as to why this is, but I would argue it’s largely due to the male-centered corporate work ethos that exists. We still live in a workforce culture where “presenteeism” is highly valued. Measuring career success or commitment based on input (such as time in the office and availability after hours) is valued more than output. This tends to work in favor of men who are often more able to prioritize work as needed. This is unfortunate for both men and women who would all benefit from a more balanced approach to work and family. In fact, research suggests that many GenX and GenY fathers would very much like to see a shift towards more involvement with their children and parenting functions. We need to challenge the status quo in the workplace and in families. Younger generations are defining success differently taking a more holistic approach to happiness and success. This needs to translate to the workforce as well. What if we could measure success in the workforce differently? What workforce changes would make your career and your life more balanced and happy? Is your company part of this positive social change or part of the problem? We need to keep asking these tough questions!