Is There Really a Choice Between Work and Family?

By Robin Madell (San Francisco)

High-achieving women want to be great in all their roles—great workers, great mothers, great friends. Their brains are better equipped for multi-tasking—so they think they can do it, and do it all equally well. But they can’t.”
-Karen Mallia, Associate Professor, University of South Carolina

A recent NPR story quoted Karen Kornbluh, who, as an ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, spent several years trying to determine ways to close the gender gap. In the piece, Kornbluh opines that workplace inequality in the U.S. is not about women—regardless of socioeconomic status — choosing family over work:

“I wouldn’t call it a ‘choice’ in the classic sense, because I don’t think they have a lot of options. You’re expected to give 100 percent on the home front and 100 percent at the work front and 100 percent to your friends and your community and you feel like a complete failure.”

Is the perceived choice that women are sometimes credited as having between work and family an artificial one? To find out, The Glass Hammer polled a group of academics, as well as legal executives, for their opinions and experience.

The Illusion of Choice

Women will only have a choice in a society where everyone believes that work, parenting, and housework are every person’s right and responsibility and gender stereotypes disappear — so says Karen Mallia, an associate professor in the Advertising School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina. Mallia notes that she doesn’t see those things happening in the near future.

“‘Choice’ is illusory,” says Mallia. “We have all internalized role expectations, and ideas about what ‘motherhood’ means, what it means to be a wife in our culture. Even studies that suggest men are taking on a greater percentage of parenting or household responsibility are flawed. They may measure ‘share of work’ by minutes or hours, but fail to account for ‘share of mind.’”

She adds that women’s internalized cultural values make them feel much more guilt and sense of failure than men if they miss a child’s play or a toddler’s first step. “They believe they should be there for every special moment,” says Mallia. “Men aren’t burdened with those internalized gender expectations and stereotypes—so they don’t feel as badly missing something they aren’t expected to do, be at, or control.”

Mitchell D. Weiss, an adjunct professor of finance at the University of Hartford’s Barney School of Business, agrees with Kornbluh’s “no choice” assessment, adding that he believes its implications pertain to men as well. “Given our collective techno-tethering, if you will, it is as much implied by our superiors as it is inferred by us that we are always on-call,” says Weiss. “Why else do we receive emails and voicemails after hours and on weekends? To get a head start on the next day or workweek? I doubt that. And, to the extent that an executive woman (or man, for that matter) is also the parent-in-charge, the juggling act is even more stressful.”

300 Percent?

Much of the “choice” debate is a result of women defining themselves by other people’s expectations of them, instead of by their own expectations for themselves, believes Amy Hillman, dean of the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. “The ambassador’s quote is an example of this with three different ‘expectations’ of 100 percent,” points out Hillman. “Individuals only have 100 percent to give total, so when you make this a question of dividing time and effort among any set of activities (work, recreation, family), you will get a ‘choice.’”

Hillman adds that men make choices just like women do about how to allocate their time — but what makes it different is that some women feel pressured by others’ expectations to do more than 100 percent, which isn’t possible. “I know lots of professional women, myself included, who are successful in their career, their family, and their community,” says Hillman. “What they don’t do, however, is define their worth by what others’ ‘expect’ they should do. They are comfortable with the tradeoffs they make and don’t make themselves miserable that their choices aren’t what others would make or would want them to make.”

Cynthia Ingols, associate professor at Simmons School of Management (which boasts the distinction of being the only MBA designed for women in the world), agrees that we all make trade-offs in life by deciding how to spend our time, either at work, home, or in our communities. “In that sense, we do have choice and we do make decisions about our priorities,” says Ingols. On the other hand, Ingols notes that we also want and need to experience the richness of life, which requires commitments to our personal lives, work, and broader society. “In that sense, we need and do make 100 percent commitments to the multiple aspects of our lives.”

Legal Opinions

Cynthia Johnson Rerko, Esq., founder of MamaWorks, offers that if we are debating: “Resolved: Women have a choice between work and family,” then her unequivocal response is, “It depends.” However, she adds that in all probability, these women likely do not have a choice.

“Unless these women are willing to forgo being mothers, the vast majority of professional women do not have the luxury of making the decision between work and family,” says Rerko, who has served as an adjunct professor of business law at Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business, as well as the first woman partner at the law firm where she began her career. “Most of the professional women I know work not only because they want the intellectual challenges and fulfillment, both financially and emotionally, but because their families need the income that their being employed produces.”

When people talk about choice, they often do so in an attempt to justify something negative that is happening to women in the workplace such as denial of a promotion, lost opportunities, or a raise, believes lawyer Cynthia Calvert, who is principal of CT Calvert & Associates, co-founder of the Project for Attorney Retention, and a senior advisor for the Diversity and Flexibility Alliance. “This effort to shift the blame to women should be recognized for what it is, but more fundamentally, it fails as a justification,” says Calvert, who served for 14 years at Miller, Cassidy, Larroca & Lewin, L.L.P. (now part of Baker Botts L.L.P.) — 6 of those years as a partner. “Choice and discrimination can and do co-exist.”

Men do not usually have to make the same choice as women between being on the star track at work and being a good parent, Calvert adds. And when the topic is the choice to stay home, she concludes, “Maternal wall bias, the glass ceiling, a lack of work-life control, and flexibility stigma often combine to make staying home the best option. When women work in a constrained environment where they have only difficult choices, we cannot treat their choices as if they were freely made.”