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How Much to Have? 40 Women’s Stories

Contributor: Connie Gersick, Yale School of Management

Forty years and two generations after the social revolution that opened countless doors for women, “work-life” conflicts remain raw and painful.  As the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project’s research shows, there is an increasing body of knowledge on ways to make our institutions more responsive to the problem.  Innovations like the Total Leadership approach offer excellent tools for creating “four-way wins…at work, at home, in the community, and for the private self.”

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s 2012 Atlantic article — and the storm of reactions to it —reveal a sharp individual longing, alongside the call for systemic change.  Individuals need assistance with the high-wire act of managing their own competing priorities through the life course.  They need models to help them identify meaningful alternative pathways, and evaluate the rewards and risks of each.  They need stories that help them imagine satisfying futures that feel achievable over the long term.

The following excerpts are adapted from one chapter in a study of women’s adult development that I conducted in an effort to respond to these needs.  The study focuses on a generation of women who embarked on careers in large numbers in the late 1960s and early 1970s—a group now old enough to know pretty much how their choices about family, career, and lifestyle have worked out.  Their perspectives and their experience offer valuable lessons for both men and women, at any stage of life.   The full chapter, “Having it all, having too much, having too little: How women manage trade-offs through adulthood” can be accessed as a Yale Working Paper here.  An excerpt follows:

It’s a fine line whether I have it all or everything’s off.  Some days, I feel I’ve really got it all.                       

             — Eileen (pseudonym), Family Business Owner and President, at age 54

What could be more reasonable than to aspire to a good standard of living, meaningful work, and a personal life that includes nurturing relationships with family and friends?  But for women, and increasingly for men, this set of desires is described in unreasonable-sounding terms as “having it all.”  The question so many women ask themselves, “Can I have it all?” implies a need to confront trade-offs:  If I commit deeply to any one choice, what will I have to sacrifice?  If I postpone family to launch my career—or the reverse—what am I risking?  Will I lose my chance to have both?  Exactly how am I going to make this work?  And how am I going to feel, in the long run, about the trade-offs I’m making now?

Such questions were particularly formidable for the corporate executives, artists, social service agency directors, and family business owners interviewed for this study.  Born between 1945 and 1955, their girlhoods were spent in a society which insisted the ideal for women was to marry, have children, and live happily ever after.  They would take jobs if necessary–significant numbers of women have always combined work outside the home with marriage and motherhood—but they would not strive for careers.  Their husbands would devote themselves to succeeding in the work world, while they took care of home and family.  Two (full-time) halves were supposed to make an unassailable whole, and “work-life conflict” was not part of the culture’s vocabulary.  In this world-view, the meaning of “All” was simple.  No woman whose husband provided her with children and a nice home could legitimately question whether she had it.

But the participants in this study embarked on adulthood just as that ideal started to fracture.  Betty Friedan’s revolution-making Feminine Mystique (1963) dared to describe housewives’ “problem with no name”: a longing for more.  The women’s movement of the 1960s and ‘70s and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 heralded a wave of change that forced doors open—a crack.  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.

As the stories here attest, these women created a wide spectrum of responses to their new choices, and discovered richly satisfying lives in the process.   Because of them and many others like them, our culture has changed profoundly.  Women have amassed decades of experience pursuing careers that were once tightly closed to them.   Men are more involved at home and more concerned about juggling work and family than ever before (see Galinsky et al).  Why, then, are young women and men still asking whether they can have it all?  Why is “How does she do it?” not just a cliché, but a truly urgent question?

This study uses the tools of social science to begin answering that question.  It examines the lives of 40 women from four occupations and a wide range of socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds.  It shows how they managed the trade-offs of adulthood from late adolescence into their forties and fifties, creating lives that were far richer than their girlhood gender roles ever led them to expect.

Understanding how these women dealt with trade-offs was not easy.  Patterns were initially difficult to see amid all the variation in their lives.  The categories suggested by existing paradigms—whether they put family, career, or both-at-once first—simply did not work.  Moreover, major trade-offs were not confined to work and family.  Other factors, such as lifestyle (i.e. money, preferences about where and how to live), often entered forcefully into the equation.  Looking literally at who did what, in what order, was bafflingly uninformative about how women fared.

Finally, I realized that such “objective” observations were misleading.  Choices that looked the same on the outside held different meanings for different women, meanings that very much influenced how their paths unfolded.  The order within the chaos finally emerged from the women’s descriptions of their subjective experience with trade-offs.  Their personal answers to two questions went to the heart of the matter: “Can I have it all?” and “How have my choices about trade-offs worked out over time?”

In a nutshell, study participants described three divergent and highly consequential answers to the core question, Can I have it all?:

“No, I cannot have it all, but I can have what is most important to me,”

“Yes, I can have it all but not all at once,” and

“Yes I can have it all, by delegating some responsibilities to others.”

Each answer implies a distinct strategy for managing trade-offs, with its own set of requirements for success and its own trajectory over time.  There was no one best way; each answer worked well for some women, into middle age.  For each answer, there were women who made successful changes when it no longer suited them, and some who ended up with regrets.  The study fleshes out the character and internal logic of each answer and strategy, illustrating with case examples in women’s own words.

There are no super-women in these pages.  The findings offer accessible models, and show that although there are no standard or easy formulas, women and men can craft trade-offs that serve them well.

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