Having it all: in pursuit of gender equality and work-life balance

People in countries with greater gender equality don’t report lower levels of work-family conflict – instead, it transfers to men. Image from shutterstock.com

I recently asked my University of Melbourne undergraduates to answer the following hypothetical: your child is sick at school. Who would usually pick him or her up? Their response was as expected – a third said the mother, a third said the father and a third said it depends on who was geographically closest, or who had the most important meeting or the least important job.

The “it depends” is exactly the type of forward-thinking gender-equal answer one would expect from this highly educated lot.

But there is a problem: they are dead wrong. The reason is that mothers, upon the birth of a child, typically make career decisions to accommodate their growing family responsibilities. This includes reducing work to part-time or taking on more flexible positions to care for children.

So, the “it depends” group is largely composed of mothers who restructured their careers for greater work-family balance.

This notion that individuals need to make better decisions to achieve a zen work-family balance is sacrosanct in our society. Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg wrote about this struggle recently in her book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, which encourages women to dismantle the internal barriers that hold them back from work successes.

Sociologists have spent decades looking at the stress associated with combining work and family roles. Patrick Coe

And many readers will remember British author Nigel Marsh’s popular TEDtalk, in which he implored viewers to make small changes in their lives so they could focus less on work and more on family life.

Yet, many are unable to achieve this work-family nirvana. Instead, their lives are filled with complications, such as answering work emails while their toddler spills a box of cereal on the floor.

So the question remains: is there a better way?

This was exactly the question that University of California sociologist Matt Huffman and I set to answer in a study published earlier this month in the journal Work and Occupations.

Sociologists have spent decades looking at work-family conflict and the stress associated with combining work and family roles. The bulk of the research identifies which individuals report the most work-family conflict. Not surprisingly, they find that women, professionals, people who work longer hours and people with greater workplace flexibility are more likely to say family conflicts with work.

This research, of course, validates many of our experiences. Yes, there is gender inequality. Yes, people in professional positions struggle with balancing work and family roles. Yes, your boss can hear your toddler harassing the kitty while you are on the phone. And, yes, these are real problems that deserve real solutions.

Over 60% of households with school-aged children are dual-earning families, so the need to address these problems in at the institutional level becomes increasingly important.

In gender-unequal societies, mothers are the most likely to report family-to-work conflict. Image from shutterstock.com

To investigate this relationship, we asked the question: do people in countries with greater gender equality report lower levels of work-family conflict?

We took data samples from 31 countries including Australia and paired them with a measure of gender equality by country. This included the percentage of women holding parliamentary seats, the gap in income between women and men, and the percentage of women who work full-time.

We expected that parents in more gender-equal societies would report less conflict between work and family. We were wrong.

In the most gender-unequal societies, we do find that mothers are the most likely to report family-to-work conflict.

But, in the most gender-equal societies, such as Sweden, Norway and Finland, this pattern changes. Fathers in these countries are the most likely to report family interferes with their work life than are mothers or individuals without children.

So what gives? Why are Swedish dads having such a hard time? We suspect that Swedish men may not be able to opt-out of childcare responsibilities while at work like men in lower gender-equality countries because they have an institutional structure that encourages gender equality.

In gender equal societies, fathers report more work-family conflict. Image from shutterstock.com

Let’s think about this another way. Swedish women may hold men accountable for family because they have institutional structures that will support them whether they are married or not. So, women may be more likely to demand that their husbands pick up the children from school and their husbands may actually respond to these demands.

I have found similar patterns for couples’ housework conflict whereby women report more conflict over housework in countries with more gender equality and that support women economically after divorce. So wives’ threats for partners’ family participation have more leverage (women, take note).

Further, Swedish women are more likely to return to work full-time after the birth of a child. So, men are expected to bond with their young children and be active participants in family life; opting-out just isn’t an option. This national discussion of gender transcends work and family issues as everyone in this country is acutely aware of gender inequality and actively works to reduce its harmful effects.

This sad story for men may actually be a good story for women and families. Giving women a more equal footing politically and economically spreads family responsibilities among parents. And a consequence of men’s greater family-work conflict may be greater marital satisfaction and happier and healthier families.

Further, women may earn more money and have longer and more successful careers if sick kids are picked up and cared for by their fathers. So, dads, don’t despair. Rather, put on your cloaks and channel your inner superdad.

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