New Study Identifies Three Strategies for “Having It All”

iStock_000015121523XSmallBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

According to a new working paper out of the Yale School of Management, women employ various different strategies in the effort to achieve a full work and family life, or as the saying goes, “have it all.”

The paper follows the lives of 40 women, and through her analysis of in-depth biographical interviews on their work and personal life, the researcher, Connie Gersick, identified three broad categories in how these women approached the question, “Can I have it all?”

The women, all born between 1945 and 1955, were among the first generation of women to enter the workforce in large numbers. Gersick says this is important in that they had precious few role models on how managing work and personal commitments is supposed to work. They had to develop their own strategies based on their personal priorities and motivations. She explains, “A generation of young women were challenged to reconcile traditional responsibilities and taboos with vast new opportunities. They did not know how or whether they could make it work. Their task was no less than to re-invent adult womanhood.”

Based on her interviews, Gersick identified three strategies the women employed – many of them switched strategies over the course of their lives to what worked best for them. Here’s what she discovered. Which strategy best reflects your own?

Three Strategies for “Having It All”

1. Prioritize and Limit. This was the strategy employed by women who believe that having it all is not possible, but rather, they can choose the most important things to them and pour their energy into those things. Gersick explained, “This answer is animated by the conviction that a woman’s highest priorities – whether related to work, relationships, or lifestyle – command so much attention that she can only truly have one or two, in her lifetime.”

2. Sequencing. This strategy is employed by women who believe the common refrain, “Yes, you can have it all, but not all at the same time.” Some put off having children until later in order to focus on their career or personal interests early in life. Some focused on their family life, waiting to commit more time their career when their children were more grown up.

3. Add and Delegate. The women who chose this strategy believed they can have it all by focusing on the big things, and getting help with some tasks like housekeeping or childcare. Gersick explained:

“In contrast to those who prioritized or sequenced, women who adopted this approach were much less likely to think their choices conflicted with each other so much as to be mutually exclusive. They anticipated adding every major element they wanted—in work, relationships, or lifestyle—without significant postponements or concessions. They would keep up by enlisting help, as necessary.”

Whereas the first two strategies came with the risk of missing out or not having enough of one element, with this one, the women risked having too much on their plate.

Doing What Works

Over time, the women in the study were likely to employ different strategies based on the events life threw their way. One suspects that these strategies were based less on careful forethought and more on just doing what worked for the woman at the time. Gersick continues:

“The pathways that worked best for the women across all three strategies were neither as obvious, nor as serene, nor as symmetrical as the popular phrase “work-life balance” suggests. There was no one best compromise, and every woman had to make trade-offs of some kind. Fortunately, even though no perfect answers emerged, there was room to correct the imperfect ones.”

She also suggests that these women, now at mid-life, likely made choices differently than women in later generations would. By and large, they did not expect a lot from their employer in terms of flexibility. “They seem mostly to have assumed that the requirements of their jobs were simply there, to be accommodated, worked around, or possibly tweaked in small ways,” Gersick writes. “The forty participants in this study were among the first women to break into traditionally male careers in significant numbers. It is not surprising that they were more concerned with proving they could play the game than with challenging the rules”

Today organizations have more of a role to play in creating work situations that work for women’s – and increasingly, men’s – family needs. Nevertheless, Gersick says, people will always face the need to make choices about work, family, and other personal priorities. The important thing is to find a strategy that works for you and that you feel a sense of ownership over that strategy.

About 75 percent of the women in the study had found a style that worked for them, she says. “Satisfaction came from a woman’s ability to craft a good match between her particular answer to ‘Can I have it all?’, and her particular values, circumstances and resources.”