In recent years, "lean in" has become popular vernacular among career women around the world. Made popular by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, it's all about seizing opportunities in the workforce –"leaning in" to career challenges – despite obstacles. But in a world where women face difficulties like having to juggle motherhood with their career or fighting institutional sexism, do female workers really believe they can have it all?
To find out, we surveyed 625 women who had experience balancing both their career and family. We asked them about their beliefs, aspirations, and setbacks to learn more about working women and whether "leaning in" is enough. Read on to see how women navigate motherhood and the workforce – and what the world can do to make it better.
Beliefs on Balance
Even former first lady Michelle Obama believes "it's not always enough to lean in." But what does the average working woman think about her career prospects, especially when it involves children?
According to our survey, more than half of female respondentsagreed that it's possible for women to balance their career and family successfully. Another 27.9% somewhat agreed with this statement, while 9% somewhat disagreed and 5.4% fully disagreed. This would suggest that most respondents were optimistic about being mothers while having a career, and that remained fairly true despite their demographic backgrounds.
Nevertheless, there were slight differences in this optimism. Women in single-income households were slightly less likely than those in double-income households to believe they could balance a career and family, and those who were a part of Generation X were also less likely to believe this compared to other generations.
Women who work and parent are, no doubt, faced with a long list of obligations and ever-shifting priorities. The average mother puts in nearly 100 hours of labor each week between work and time spent on her family, according to one recent study. We asked mothers about how they believe they balanced work and family, plus how they envisioned that balance ideally.
Our survey results suggest that about a third of mothersconsidered themselves "much more focused" on their family than their career. Almost 15% considered themselves "somewhat more focused" on their family, while a little over a quarter said they were equally career- and family-focused.
Nevertheless, the majority of women said their ideal was an equal split between their career and family, with nearly 39% of respondents saying so. Another 19.4% saw their ideal life as "strongly family-focused," while 17.4% saw their ideal life as "completely family-focused."
Finding the Ideal Balance
For many women, finding the ideal balance between work and family usually takes years of practice. In fact, working moms took an average of nearly six years to achieve a work-life balance they found satisfactory. We surveyed working mothers about their satisfaction level depending on how they balanced work and family –plus how many women thought their careers suffered as a result.
Interestingly, our findings suggest that the majority of women surveyed (nearly 61%) were most satisfied when they were mostly career-focused. Meanwhile, more than half of those who were equally career- and family-focused were also satisfied, as was the case for those who considered themselves mostly family-focused (49%). However, respondents who were family-focused were most likely to believe their work compensation suffered due to familial responsibilities.
Even so, a large proportion of mostly career-focused women – 41% – still believed their work compensation was negatively impacted because of responsibilities to their family.
In the U.S., the gender wage gap is certainly wide – women made 18.2% less than men on average, according to 2017 numbers provided by the OECD. And the gender wage gap significantly widens with the arrival of a family's first child. As The New York Times put it, "... women's earnings plummet and their career trajectories slow." Meanwhile, new fathers remain relatively unimpacted.
To get a glimpse into this reality, we asked women whether they felt supported at work and what policies ultimately made working and motherhood more seamless. Our survey results suggest that working moms were much more likely to be satisfied with their job when they were supported to take time off for child care. About 63% of women in this situation were satisfied with their job when employers were supportive of time off, compared to just 16% of women who worked at places where they were not supported. Meanwhile, 31% of currently unemployed mothers reported their workplace was not supportive of time off for child care.
Of all the perks offered, survey respondents were most favorable of different or more flexible working hours (45.2%). Forty-three percent said days off were the most helpful, while 32.6% said more flexibility in their work responsibilities was most helpful.
Motherhood vs. Career
It's often said women are forced to choose either children or a career. But how do things look for those who ultimately manage both? And are there advantages to both working and being a mother?
According to our survey, about 42% of women surveyed said they believed motherhood benefited their career, while fewer (28.2%) believed their career benefited motherhood. Interestingly, women newest to the workforce, with 2-5 years of work experience, were most likely to believe motherhood benefited their careers (48.4%). Whereas, veterans of the workforce –women with 16 or more years of job experience – were most likely to say their career benefited motherhood (34.5%). This group was also likely to believe motherhood benefited their career (46.5%).
Some respondents explained their reasoning:
"Being a mother helped me be better at my job because it taught me patience with poor behavior even in adults. It kept me calm and focused on my goal. Working, on the other hand, never really made me a better mother," said a 60-year-old survey respondent who had 16 or more years of job experience. "I was more tired and lacked the time I needed to be all the places I needed to be at once."
We also analyzed women's explanations of how motherhood skills translated to the workplace. We found over 17% of women mentioned "compassion" as a valuable skill they brought to work, along with 14% who mentioned "patience" and 11% who brought their multitasking skills to the office.
Words of Advice
If you're a working mother or hope to be one, there's perhaps no better place to look for advice than here. We asked women who balanced their careers and families for their best piece of advice.
In the end, more women wished they had spent more time with their family than with their co-workers. Thirty-four percent of women said that, in hindsight, they would have spent more time with their family. Only 13% said they wished they had spent more time on their career – and nearly 40% said that, ideally, they would have balanced both equally.
Working Mothers Are the Majority
These days, most mothers are working mothers. More than 70% of American women with children under 18 have a job, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and some have even called working mothers "the backbone of the U.S. economy." Moreover, women spent about nine more hours doing paid work in 2016 than in 1965, on average.
Given this shift in American culture over the last few decades, understanding working motherhood is, no doubt, important for the betterment of our society. Mothers still face discrimination, unfair wages, and sexism in the workforce – and even worse, many are afraid to speak up about it. Our survey of 625 women respondents gives us a glimpse into the very real, raw world of parenting and having a career.
We surveyed 625 women who have or had careers and families to understand how they felt about balancing their work and kids' needs. Our respondents ranged in age from 29 to 75 with an average age of 44 and a standard deviation of 11 years. Twenty percent of the women surveyed were currently unemployed, while the majority (80%) were employed. We also surveyed 762 women who were currently pursuing careers and aspired to be mothers to gauge their sentiment toward their jobs, future families, and their ability to manage both.
We measured sentiment toward women's balance of work and family using a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 being "completely career-focused," 4 being "equally career- and family-focused," and 7 being "completely family-focused." We measured sentiments like career satisfaction to understand how women's choices affected their job satisfaction. We also did a word analysis that broke down mentions of each word in write-in options of our survey to analyze the number of times women mentioned specific skills they learned from motherhood that they brought to the office.
Fair Use Statement
Are you optimistic about balancing a family and career? Feel free to share our study on women's perspectives of work-life balance for noncommercial purposes, but don't forget to link back to us to give us some credit for these insights.