Women’s Elusive Quest for Balance

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BY CHRISTINE SPICER

Work-life balance is supposed to transform busyness into a meaningful life, but a number of female writers have been questioning whether and how women, in particular, can actually achieve such a balance. The conversation is not new, said PLNU political science professor Dr. Linda Beail, who is also the director of PLNU’s Margaret Stevenson Center for Women’s Studies, but persists because so many core issues remain unresolved. We asked Beail to help us understand the discussion.

Q: There have been a lot of writers talking about the challenges faced by women who want to pursue professional careers and be wives and mothers. But is this conversation actually bigger than this particular group?

A: Yes, we shouldn’t talk about this just in terms of nuclear families. So many people have extended families that depend on them, whether that’s children they are helping to raise or elderly parents or other relatives they are caring for. A lot of us have webs of kinship and relationship that make demands on us that aren’t just small children. Also, as a single person, you have to create a life, too. Sometimes young single people say, “I will never be one of those people trying to balance work and a social life if I don’t get out of this office!”

Q: Anne-Marie Slaughter, president and CEO of the New America Foundation and professor emerita at Princeton University, was the first woman to serve as director of policy planning for the United States Department of State from 2009-11. In 2012, she wrote a now-famous feature article for The Atlantic entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” She is among the writers who critique American workplace culture as being hostile or oppressive to women, especially working moms. What does she mean by that?

A: It’s empirically true that there is a penalty for being a mother in the workplace. We used to talk a lot about the glass ceiling and there are still instances of that, but now researchers are talking about the “maternal wall.” A lot of the real obstacles for women in the workforce seem to be coming less for younger, single women just out of college at the beginning of their careers and more when women have children. One of the issues is that women’s biological clocks are on a collision course with a career track or path. The very time you are building your career in your 20s and early 30s is the same time women’s fertility is an issue. If you wait and build your career for 15 years, you may end up on the other side of that and say, “Wait, what happened to my ability to have a family?”
Also, workplaces have traditionally assumed employees would have a linear 40-year career and wouldn’t take breaks or need a lot of flexibility, and that being committed to that never-take-a-break model indicated ambition and dedication. Those people were seen as the most promising and best employees.
Job sharing, flexibility, part-time options, telecommuting, family leave—these options have not existed a lot. In fact, the U.S. is one of the only countries in the world to not have paid family leave and more sorts of supports. Either in terms of public policy or employers and workplaces, we don’t really acknowledge that human beings are both workers and people in families and that both parts of their lives need to work. The structural barriers in terms of not having the kinds of supports and time off and the biological clock issues are really problematic for women staying in the workforce and being able to succeed at the highest levels.

Q: So what happens when women do choose to take a break?

A: We know that even taking as little as six months to a year off after the birth of a child permanently sets women back—that they never catch up fully to the wages or promotions they would have otherwise had. It can be not just dropping out of the workforce permanently, but even small breaks that can have a big, big economic and career cost.

Q: What about men? Do working dads have it any easier?

A: Dads who do a significant amount of childcare, who want more flexibility in the workplace, or who don’t want to work a massive number of hours a week are paying a similar kind of career price in terms of promotions or wages as women who want some flexibility or take some time away. But culturally or attitudinally, it cuts a little differently for men. There are a lot of anecdotes about men who bring their kids to a meeting or who say they have to leave early because they have to go coach a soccer game and people say, “Oh, what a good dad!” Whereas when women do the same things, the attitude is more likely to be “Why can’t you get your childcare arrangements all figured out? What’s wrong with you that this is impinging on work?” Because the expectation is less normal that dads will be so hands on, there is a little more social reward that it’s novel, that it’s really nice, and that it’s a good thing for dads to be involved. There is a downside for a more hands-on dad, but there’s also a little bit of an upside as well. With women, there is just this expectation that you are going to do both, you’re going to do them effortlessly, and that they shouldn’t impact each other.

Q: What about at home—are things really harder for moms than dads there, too?

A: We know that men are part of this equation in terms of how to balance work and life and kids. Time-use studies show that men are doing more housework and childcare, but they still haven’t caught up.

Women are still doing the bulk of it, so that’s another piece. There are increased pressures and expectations on women to have beautiful homes and to be great mothers and to still do the majority of that work, as well as to be professionally successful, and those sorts of expectations keep ramping up and ramping up.

It’s often the women in the household who will be thinking: “Do the kids have all the clothes they need for school?” Or, “Have they finished the project that’s due a week from Thursday?” The dads might be hands-on and awesome with the kids, but they might not
be thinking, “Oh, we need to go buy socks before soccer practice” or whatever. There’s also a lot of research that women do a lot of the emotional work or kin work, so thinking about where we spend our Thanksgiving, where are we spending Christmas, how are we organizing the holidays, when are we going to take the photo for the Christmas card, who is going to buy the gift for my mother-in-law. Women are doing a lot of that invisible but important familial work. So there’s still an awful lot of responsibility.

There is also research on the amped up expectations for parenting. We know that working mothers spend more time actually interacting with kids than stay-at-home moms did in the 1960s, which is kind of amazing. It’s a very middle class American notion that you’ve got to be stimulating your kids and educating your kids and having quality time all the time. This idea of really intense motherhood is new—it’s not just keep the kids healthy and safe, feed and clothe them, now it’s supposed to be creative and stimulating and intense parenting. It’s not just the obstacles of the workplace but our expectations and the pressures we put on each other of this really intense kind of parenting.

Q: So trying to juggle their various roles is what prevents women from feeling balanced and leaves them feeling overwhelmingly busy or even burned out?

A: Psychologists from Biola University did some interesting fieldwork on work-life balance for women in the church. What they found out was it wasn’t really the multiple roles that women were playing in their churches, families, and jobs that were making them unhappy or stressed. It was when they felt that those roles were in conflict or when they felt judged for their choices that they became unhappy.

Q: Most of the people writing about these issues feel that greater workplace flexibility is part of what’s necessary to make high-level work and parenting compatible. Is this something that could be on the horizon in more professions?

A: In some ways, yes. There are so many more women in the workforce with not only college degrees but now master’s degrees and terminal degrees in all kinds of fields who are insisting on these more human scale, healthful kinds of changes—and
men, too. This younger generation includes men who are not envisioning themselves working 80 hours a week or thinking that being a good dad only means being a financial provider. They have all kinds of creative, artistic, as well as relational things that they’re interested in. I think there are a lot of generational, attitudinal pressures for change coming simply from who is now in the workforce.

However, I would temper that by saying that the people I was just talking about are not the whole picture. It tends to be the upper-middle class and professional class that are trying to solve some of these problems for themselves, but how much that trickles down to working class folks and how much it is changing around the globe is hard to say. I want to be hopeful, but I’m not necessarily optimistic that it’s trickling down a lot or changing working conditions for men and women everywhere. As we see so much poverty and so much pressure economically, it’s not clear to me that workers in a lot of places have a lot of power or clout to ask for what they need.

Q: Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, acknowledges many of the systemic hurdles women face, but she also believes women make some individual choices that hold them back. What do writers like Sandberg think women need or ought to do differently?

A: Because all of these pressures have amped up a lot, you do see women looking at the situation and thinking, “That looks really overwhelming. It’s a game I can’t win at.” I see a lot of women doing this—leaning back instead of leaning in, to use Sandberg’s words. There is this gap in confidence and ambition where women are backing away and thinking, “I can’t do it all, I can’t have it all, I can’t handle it all, so I’ll just sort of back away before I even really start.”

I think Sandberg’s observation provokes a really good and important conversation. Why are we putting such crazy expectations on ourselves: I’m going to work 60 hours a week and be an amazing professional, but I’m also going to be on Pinterest, and I’m going to hand-make three kids’ Halloween costumes and cupcakes and whatever? It’s too much. It’s not possible. But we can now all see what everybody makes for their kids’ cute Halloween costumes on Pinterest, and we feel that pressure. I think part of what Lean In is saying is not to internalize those messages of backing away or feeling incompetent or feeling like you can’t do it. She’s encouraging women to be more assertive and more confident and to participate, not back away.

I do think it’s important to be aware that you’re not going to solve it all individually, but there are things you can do to navigate this as an individual woman to maybe help other women and yourself make progress. I think having high aspirations is really important, finding those role models where you can (and there are more and more of them out there all the time), broadening your horizons and aiming high, and having confidence that you can do it. I think women could encourage each other a lot and not judge each other. I think that we need to be both confident, leaning in and making the most of our opportunities, and also savvy about what our choices mean and what our options might be.

Q: You recently published Results May Vary: Christian Women Reflect on Post-College Life. Why did you want to create a book about the varying life paths Christian women choose?

A: I remember when I was in college feeling really hungry to know people’s stories. I knew my mom’s life story and my grandma’s story, but I really didn’t know how other people had made choices about work, about marriage, about kids, about money, about all kinds of things, and so part of the reason for the book, which grew out of this series of forums we held on campus, was to get a bunch of different women who are all really faithful Christians to talk about the choices they’ve made and the very different ways their lives have turned out. We wanted to show that I can support you, and you can support me, and we can want what’s good for all women and want all women to have opportunities to flourish without it all having to look the same.

I think a goal was to demystify this notion of what womanhood should look like or how work-life balance should look or what being a Christian wife and mother should look like and to tell the real stories of things we have learned the hard way, things that have been enormous joys and blessings. That was really important to me. I also wanted to tell the truth to the people coming behind so that they wouldn’t have unrealistic expectations or crazy pressures on them or feel crushed or disappointed when life throws them a curveball and doesn’t turn out exactly like they had envisioned.

At the senior women’s retreat we have at PLNU each year, we really talk about how when the unexpected things happen, it’s okay. God is faithful and when we make mistakes, as we all do, God’s grace and redemptive work in our lives is real. I think students leave the retreat and book with fewer answers but maybe with a sense of greater peace and trust.

 

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