More women than ever are establishing successful work lives. Yet women today, especially educated women, confront conflicting expectations at home and at the office. How does a woman remain focused on her career and, at the same time, tackle multiple roles on the domestic front? This conflict can lead some women to doubt their own abilities both as workers and as family members. One woman may believe that, if only she were better organized, she would not feel so overwhelmed. Another may do without sleep to ensure that her family responsibilities are fulfilled before the start of another workday. Yet, the challenge these women face can be best understood within the larger context of social, political, and economic forces in the United States today.

The working mother is now the norm in this country, yet most work settings lack the flexibility necessary to accommodate the complexity and spontaneity of family life.

Young women still in school or just beginning their careers believe that they have the same opportunities as men their age to succeed in their chosen careers. At the same time, college-educated women tend to be interested in acquiring prized jobs and in advancing through the promotional ranks. Unfortunately, the career-building years overlap with the childbearing years, and women are still the primary caretakers of children (not to mention elderly parents). The woman whose definition of success includes being both a mother and career woman needs to decide her priorities early in her career and marriage.

No woman is immune from having to make these choices, as has become evident from recent news stories. Even highly-paid executives with the means to secure quality child care have chosen to relinquish their prized CEO positions because they felt that their demanding jobs were jeopardizing their family life. All the resources at a woman’s disposal do not compensate for the missed parent conferences, concerts, birthday parties, or soccer games. How do working women mesh their work and family roles over the course of their lives?

For the individual woman, the resolution of this conflict is a private, personal choice. In the U.S., family has always been considered a private world, a refuge from public life, free from politics and governmental intervention. Politicians may proclaim support for “family values,” yet governmental policy may serve instead to limit the options available to a woman and her family. It is within this ambivalent social and political environment that women today are building their careers and families.

One governmental initiative that does offer workplace support for families is the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, an attempt to preserve family integrity while protecting a person’s job security. This act guarantees a worker up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave for childbirth, adoption, or family illness and guarantees that a job comparable to the one previously held will be waiting upon the worker’s return. This act applies to both men and women, yet women are its main beneficiaries.

Another bright light on the work landscape is the current U.S. economy, which presents an array of opportunities for skilled workers. In this environment, women with young children are able to devise creative solutions to the family-work dilemma because their supervisors wish to accommodate their needs for fear that they will leave the work site completely.

For many women, the best strategy is part-time work, a temporary state until the children are in school. Another strategy, especially for working-class women, is shift work, which ensures that one parent is home for extended periods of time. Another alternative is scaling back to a less competitive occupation, one that does not spill over into family life. Recently, when my son’s pediatrician became pregnant with her second child, she gave up her practice to work as a medical administrator.

What Pleck said in 1977 still applies: men’s work spills over into their family life, women’s family obligations spill over into their work. What women need from the work setting is more time and flexibility. Part-time work is so appealing because it offers both flexibility and time, but at the expense of benefits and job advancement. Part-time work can be even beneficial for older women — and men — with elderly parents in need of care. The fact that more women will be entering the work force in the future gives me hope that the structure of work will inevitably change to accommodate family needs. As the workforce of women grows, their sheer numbers will force the issue of their needs being addressed.

Reference

Pleck, J. (1977). The work-family role system. Social Problems, 24, 417-427.