New research shows both groups report similar levels of work-family conflicts—but is it really equal?
Can anyone really "have it all" anymore?
Now, ask a working dad about work-life balance. If you expect to hear crickets, you may be surprised. According to research published on July 28 in the Journal of Applied Psychology, men and women both report similar
levels of work-family conflicts, both in the form of work interfering with family and family interfering with work.
Researchers examined the findings from more than 350 studies conducted over three decades that included more than 250,000 participants from across the world. (More than half of the surveys were conducted in 2010 or later.) The surveys typically asked participants to rate statements such as, "My work interferes with my family life more than I would like," or "My family responsibilities make it hard to accomplish my work tasks," on a scale ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree.
The results surprised even the researchers: Men and women on average responded similarly to those questions.
Even when they examined subgroups, including moms and dads in dual-income households, the differences were negligible. “Mothers report slightly more of the family interference with work type conflict compared to fathers,” says Kristen Shockley, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Georgia. That’s it. A slight difference.
It certainly runs contrary to the public perception that working mothers are running frantically around, trying to shoulder the bulk of childcare and household chores, while dads breeze through life unconcerned with missing out on ballet recitals or, on the other hand, late-night work projects.
It also begs the question: Is it because men are doing more?
To some degree, yes. Today’s dads are much more involved than their own fathers and grandfathers. In 2015, fathers reported spending seven hours a week on childcare—almost triple the time they provided back in 1965, according to research by the Pew Center. Dads are also just as likely as moms to say parenting is central to their identity. So it makes sense that more fathers would say their work and family duties conflict.
But it's doubtful that they've caught up to working moms in terms of their overall workload. Another recent survey found that, when factoring in family duties, working moms typically work 98 hours a week. And a 2015 survey by the Working Mother Research Institute found that moms still do most of the household tasks like laundry (79% for working moms vs. 22% for working dads), cleaning bathrooms (67% vs. 21%) and keeping the house tidy (64% vs. 20%). The same study found that women handle more of the chores related to childcare, too. Lots of research, including rigorous data collection tracking how women and men spend their time, support the notion that working mothers have a heavier combined workload.
So why would research show that men and women across the globe report a similar level of conflict between work and home, when women still bear a heavier combined burden and talk about it far more frequently?
It could have something to do with cultural perceptions, Dr. Shockley explains. “What this doesn't capture is the objective reality. My hunch is that because of the way men and women are socialized, women expect that work-family conflict is going to be an issue for them. Men do not really think about these issues—data from college-age men and women support that.”
In other words, women with career aspirations are trained from an early age to expect work and family life to interfere with one another. When asked on a survey if they agree with the notion, it’s easy to mark “agree” and move on. For men, the conflict may come as a surprise, leading them to dash off an X for “strongly agree” to the same question.
“If that is what is happening, then we would see our measures artificially equating men and women—women are actually experiencing more conflict, but are just rating it differently,” Dr. Shockley explains.
It could also be that it’s simply more socially acceptable for women to talk about work-life balance, whereas men don’t feel comfortable discussing similar concerns for a variety of reasons: fears of being stigmatized, threats to their masculinity or negative career repercussions. They may feel more inclined to be honest in anonymous, confidential surveys, Dr. Shockley says.
It’s certainly true that female CEOs are asked “how they do it all” far more often than men. Perhaps it’s time, Dr. Shockley suggests, to start asking the question of men (aloud, and not only in surveys). “That's the only way I see real change happening at the structural level—i.e. changes in how work and careers are typically structured that actually allow for true balance.”
Co-authored by Kristen Shockley, Ph.D. & Winny Shen, Ph.D.