After dangling from monkey bars and shooting through the sky on twirling tire swings, 8-year-old Akila suddenly stopped in front of a slide and beamed at her mother. “In that moment my daughter realized, This is a project my mom worked on,” says Alexandrea DavisShaw, a city engineer in Sarasota, FL. While playground design isn’t all fun and games, the hard work feels worth it when your kid thinks you rock. “Seeing the playground made my work real to her. She thought it was the coolest,” adds Alexandrea.
Converting a patch of asphalt into a playground is pretty cool, admits Alexandrea, who says impressing her daughter and the seesaw set isn’t the only payoff of her career. “One of the things that’s most rewarding is being able to make quality-of-life improvements—beach projects, parks—the things that people love and enjoy. I transform things.”
Now that more than half of the people on American payrolls are women, and moms are the primary or co-breadwinners in almost two thirds of all families, women like Alexandrea are transforming much more than open spaces. American families are under construction as we rethink who works, who stays home to care for the kids and why we work. To mark the 25th anniversary of the Working Mother 100 Best Companies initiative, we joined forces with Ernst & Young, IBM and Procter & Gamble to conduct a national survey that examines moms in the workplace. “What Moms Think: Career vs. Paycheck, The Working Mother Report’’ takes a hard look at how working moms are perceived—both how we see our own roles and how others see us. We heard from more than 4,600 people across the country, including working mothers, stay-at-home moms, working dads and singles in the workplace, who revealed the attitude adjustments that have taken place since our list debuted. The juggling, struggling, nurturing and negotiating that happen in our homes and in our offices are more complex—and important—than ever because how women in the workplace think and behave is reshaping our cultural landscape.
A Journey, Not a Job
Whether a working mom labels her work as a job or as a career shapes her sense of identity. Alexandrea, her family’s primary breadwinner, explains that her career affects everything from who she’s friends with to how she explains math to her daughter when doing homework. “Work brings me outside my four walls into the world, and that helps me in all aspects of my life,” she says. That sentiment was strongly echoed by our survey results.
Working moms who believe they have a career are happier in almost every aspect of life—kids, marriage, friendships, spouses and the choice to work— than moms who say they’re working pri marily for the paycheck. In fact, self-identified career moms say they also earn more money and more respect and have more confidence. “I have this identity that’s independent of my kids and husband,” says Lisa Carriveau, a Richland, MI, mom of two and vice president of business banking for PNC Financial Services. “It’s mine. I created it, and I work every day to make it better. I don’t feel like I’m tearing myself away from my kids to do something I hate, but to better my whole family. That makes me appreciate the time I have with them that much more.”
Yet ask a woman what makes for a career rather than a job and the answer may surprise you. For example, we heard from attorneys who say they work to pay the bills and paralegals who say they work because of the tremendous contribution they make. “I meet women all the time who think of their jobs as careers, and it doesn’t matter if they’re bank tellers or executives,” says Carol Evans, president of Working Mother Media. “If we encourage women to embrace the long-term relationship that a career implies, they derive greater satisfaction from it, feel more positively about their relationships and even earn more respect.”
Marie Wilson, president of the White House Project, a nonprofit organization that researches and advocates for female leadership, believes that “everything goes better when you think you’re doing something with a sense of purpose and a future to it.” She adds: “Careers imply that there’s opportunity, a next step. It means that there’s hope. You hear people say, ‘It’s just a job,’ but you don’t hear anyone say, ‘It’s just a career.’”
Managers Praise Moms
Now that the cigar-chomping boys’-club days of Mad Men are in the past, women are finding that male managers are among their biggest supporters. In fact, our survey found that men in leadership roles say working moms “reliably deliver quality work” and are “committed to their job responsibilities.” Male managers were also more likely than any other group—including working moms themselves—to say that working mothers take on additional work, travel for work, take on stretch assignments, will relocate for their job and are committed to career advancement.
“The moms I work with care a little more; they want to make sure the image they put out is positive,” says Mike Kosher, a father of two and a vice president of enrollment at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, MO. “They see the big picture and strive to do their best, even though there are other things—the house, the car, the kids—that might be occupying their thoughts. If they have deadlines, they’re very conscientious.”
Male managers watch what moms accomplish, says Wilson. “Once we have children, we start performing to the max,” she points out. “As a rule, these managers see the juggling act, see how motivated we are and see us going way beyond. My guess is that they have a lot of respect for us. We’re enormously efficient.”
Male managers also take note of the long hours many working moms put in. Foreign Service Officer Gary Newton notes that the emails from working moms are the ones waiting for you first thing in the morning—sent in the evening when the kids are in bed and many women catch up on their work.
Men Use Flex More
Male managers’ wholehearted support of working moms doesn’t extend beyond the office, according to our survey. For example, these men were more likely than other respondents who work to say that one parent should stay at home to care for children. They were also more likely to say that when a mother works outside the home, it negatively impacts her relationship with her children. And even though the nation has moved to a dual-income-household model, with a greater need for flexibility for moms and dads, flex is still primarily viewed as a woman’s issue.
Moms surveyed say that a flexible schedule is trumped only by stability and security when they look for a new job. Yet our survey revealed that men are more likely to have jobs that allow for flexibility, that they are more likely to use flex without fear of retribution and that flexibility has had a positive impact on their career advancement.
“Most of the time I don’t feel guilty leaving work; it’s not a huge issue,” says aircraft inspector Rich Naviglia, a father of one from High Point, NC. “When it was my daughter’s first day of kindergarten, I told them I had to go, and nobody said anything. I don’t feel that doing anything with my children is perceived as having an ill effect. The other guys in my department wouldn’t be rolling their eyes, saying, ‘There goes Rich, attending plays with his daughter.’”
It’s different for working moms. “Women don’t want to push it,” says Valerie Voorheis, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. “They don’t want to be stereotyped as moms. So they’ll miss the soccer game, but stay home when the kids are sick.”
A Double Standard
When women do take time off, many moms apologize for it by using PTO (paid time off), says Laraine T. Zappert, a clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University and author of Getting It Right: How Working Mothers Successfully Take Up the Challenge of Life, Family and Career. “My research over the past thirty years shows that women will use paid time off to attend a child’s school play, while their husbands would just go,” she says. Indeed, the women surveyed appear reluctant to simply take a break in their day to tend to a family matter. “When a woman says she’s going to take her daughter to the dentist, people think she’s shirking her job,” says Working Mother Media’s Evans. “If the father takes her, people think, Oh, you’re so great.”
A double standard still lingers, agrees Alexandrea. “I know guys in the private sector who take half days to play golf; they feel it’s their obligation. But if a mom took half a day to take her daughter to the water park, even though it’s still the same four hours away, it might be viewed differently.”
He Doesn't Help at Home
The use of f lex isn’t the only male/female inequity. Things are also lopsided when it comes to who does more cooking, cleaning and caring for the kids. Women in our survey were significantly more likely than men to say that domestic chores should be split down the middle. But fewer than half say their spouses do their fair share.
“I think that I do a lot, but that I don’t do enough,” says video editor James Machado, a father of three from Woodbridge, NJ. “I fix broken fixtures and renovate bathrooms and cook. But she has to follow me around with the dustpan a little bit; I leave destruction in my wake. If the living room looks like a tornado, I clean it like a tornado. When I cook, I use every pot.”
Lisa Carriveau thinks much of this labor dispute has to do with Mars vs Venus values. “My husband doesn’t care if the carpet gets vacuumed more than once a week, and I truly care about that,” she says. “I work longer hours and make more money and do the majority of work, but he says it doesn’t dawn on him what needs to be done around the house.”
Women like Lisa who earn more than their husbands are more likely to expect men to contribute more around the house, according to our survey. When you earn twice what your husband makes and work twice the hours, you want your husband to do more, agrees Nicole Naviglia, a senior vice president of business development for an ad agency in North Carolina. Rich, her husband, thinks he does his fair share: “It’s close to fifty-fifty,” Rich explains. “I do a lot of picking up and more of the downstairs cleaning, and she does a lot of the wash. She gets our daughter ready in the morning and takes her to school, and then I pick her up and get her dinner and play with her, and we’ll do homework. Three days out of five, I’ll get her dinner or a bath and put her to bed.”
“He does yard work,” notes Nicole. “But does he clean bathrooms? Dust? No. He will pick up, but not clean. And it’s not just that. It’s the shopping, the appointments and getting gifts for our daughter to take to school.”
New Balance of Power
When Mom is the primary breadwinner, couples disagree about more than who should do the dishes. Asked, in theory, about the idea of their spouse outearning them, 73 percent of women and 59 percent of men said they were “comfortable” with the idea of their partner earning more. But when women actually are the breadwinners, this comfort level shifts for both men and women: 87 percent of said they wouldn’t mind their husbands bringing in more income than they do, and just 42 percent of men said they were okay with their wife earning more than they do.
A Deep Ambivalence
“All of us like to think we’d be okay if the roles were reversed,” offers Wilson. “But I have found that, deep down, we’re all a little more tied to traditional gender roles than we realize. When tradition is upended, it surprises us. We don’t know what to do with this new balance of power.”
Indeed, our survey found a deep ambivalence among both men and women about women earning more. Ryan Darst, a high school math teacher in Olathe, KS, who is a dad of three, earns just $500 more annually than his wife. “It’s almost the same, but I say I’m the breadwinner,” he says with a laugh. “I’d like to say it wouldn’t bother me if she made $20,000 more, but I don’t know if I could speak to that until it happened. It may be that old-school provider within me, or a need to follow stereotypical motherly and fatherly duties.”
For James, providing for his family is a point of pride. “It’s not enough for most men to say, ‘Right now, I’m not making money, but I have love to give!’ Love is important, but it would be a jump for me to say, ‘This is okay.’ I would feel inadequate. If I were rendered incapable of making money and being able to provide, it would be crippling.”
Howard Lavine, an associate professor of political science and psychology at the State University of New York–Stony Brook, agrees that in principle it doesn’t bother him that his wife, an attorney, earns more. But her work has additional value: “If I don’t write a book, nothing happens, but if she doesn’t work, her client could go to jail for ten years. There’s no denying that her work matters in an immediate way, and my work doesn’t. Symbolically, it doesn’t threaten me. But I wish that my work was more important.”
Women have some ambivalence about their roles, admits Nicole. “I have girlfriends whose husbands make really good money, and it allows them to stay home. There are times when I do think, Wow, that’s nice. They spend more time with their children, work out more and do more leisure things. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t look at them with some degree of jealousy. But I’m not equipped to be a stay-at-home mom. I need that mental and emotional stimulation I get from working.”
Keeping an Open Mind
Alexandrea says families today have to be open-minded because they can’t step into the same roles their parents played just a generation ago. “It’s a tough thing, because my mom worked but my dad earned more. Therefore, my dad felt that she should do more around the house. But she worked as many hours as he did.” With that in mind, Alexandrea, who outearns her husband, says she tries not to think in terms of dollars but in terms of hours. “If he’s putting in sixty hours and I’m putting in less, I do more at home. We shift around depending on who has more flexibility at the time.”
At the office, there’s a similar open-mindedness among her male supervisors and male coworkers. “They couldn’t be more supportive,” she says. Still, every once in a while she stumbles upon an outdated view of moms in the workplace. “I’ve had headhunters ask the question, ‘Oh, you’ve got kids—how are you going to manage this job?’ If I were a guy with kids, they would not ask that question. They would not ask a man with kids how he will handle it all,” she says, noting that perceptions of what women can handle have yet to catch up with reality. Because, of course, women are already handling it all.