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Women’s Role Between Work and Family

Search for the Right Balance Goes On

NEW YORK, MARCH 11, 2006 ( Wednesday’s celebration of International Women’s Day brought with it the customary pleas for greater equality. The anniversary also provided the occasion for the publication of a number of studies on women’s issues.

During a meeting held Feb. 27 at the U.N. headquarters in New York the Inter-Parliamentary Union presented the results of a study on the participation of women in politics. The Geneva-based organization noted that there are now 20 parliaments where the proportion of women exceeds 30%.

Of these 20 countries, 10 are in Europe and five in Africa. The remaining five comprise Iraq and several countries in Latin America. In a message released Wednesday, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan noted that there are now 11 women as heads of state or government.

Regarding women’s role in the economy, the European Commission on Feb. 24 released a study showing that women in the European Union earn 15% less than men. The report also drew attention to the difficulty that many women face in achieving a satisfactory balance between work and family life. Women in Europe account for 32% of managers, and comprise just 10% of members of the boards. Only 3% of chief executive officers of larger enterprises are women.

Norway’s response to this situation is a law recently approved that requires women to occupy 40% of board positions within the next two years. In a Jan. 12 article on the new law, the New York Times noted that while women have achieved a certain prominence in European political life, they are very under-represented at the top business levels. Of the top 30 companies of the German stock exchange, for example, only one board member is a woman.

Call of motherhood

But while discrimination no doubt still exists, the lack of women at the top also reflects deliberate decisions to dedicate time to another important role, namely, motherhood. On Jan. 6 the London-based Times newspaper reported on the decision of Phoebe Philo to resign her position as creative director of the French fashion house Chloé, in order to spend more time with her 1-year-old daughter, Maya. Philo, 32, was named British Designer of the Year in 2004.

Sunday Times commentator India Knight, in a piece written two days later, observed that a number studies on child care reveal problems with leaving youngsters in institutions while their mothers go off to work.

Knight also suggested that instead of “mumbling about patriarchy,” women should ask themselves some tough questions about whether it is possible to have a career (as opposed to just a job) and to raise small children at the same time.

She also commented that women “need to feel pleased and proud of themselves for choosing, if that is what they want, to stay at home looking after their babies.” Other women, she added, should stop making those who choose to dedicate themselves to motherhood feel as if they were “pathetic or boring.”

In fact, women’s participation in the U.S. labor force has declined slightly in recent years, the New York Times reported March 2. The peak was hit in 2000, when 77% of women aged 25 to 54 were in the work force. The figure today is around 75%.

Suzanne Bianchi, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, noted that in addition to using child care, women who worked outside the home slept less than those who were not employed, and in general faced serious time-management problems. “Perhaps time has been compressed as far as it will go,” Bianchi suggested.

Attitudes also might be changing among younger women. An increasing number of women studying in the nation’s most prestigious colleges say that they are willing to put aside their careers in favor of raising children, the New York Times reported Sept. 20. The opinions came out in interviews with Ivy League students.

The newspaper observed that data from a number of other surveys on work-force participation by college graduates showed in past years many women expected to have top-flight careers, but reduced their expectations after having children. By contrast, women in the current generation of students already expect their careers to take second place to child rearing.

Finding happiness

The change in expectations may lead, in fact, to greater contentment, reported the Australian newspaper last Sept. 29. The paper summarized the findings of a research paper, “Does Part-Time Work Make the Family Happy,” authored by Jan van Ours and Alison Booth.

“Australian couples are happiest when men are working full time,” van Ours said. She commented that when a man works full time, a woman has a choice about whether to go to work, especially if she has children. For their part, women were happiest with their working lives when working 21 to 34 hours a week.

These findings were confirmed by a recently published survey titled, “What’s Love Got to Do With It? Equality, Equity, Commitment and Women’s Marital Quality.” The study, written by Bradford Wilcox and Steven Nock, from the University of Virginia, was published in the March issue of the journal Social Forces.

They started by noting how many family scholars argue that “egalitarian marriages” make for high-quality, stable unions. The egalitarian model, with husband and wife sharing responsibilities and both having careers, contrasts with the older model of marriage in which women tended to remain at home.

Recent research, however, on the link between marital equality and marital quality is mixed, they note. In fact, a number of studies found that more women in the older, more traditional type of marriages are happier.

Looking at the reasons behind these results, Wilcox and Nock observe that today one crucial factor behind a successful marriage is achieving emotional support between the spouses.

Men who are committed to the more traditional form of marriage may “feel a greater moral responsibility than other men to signal their belief in the sanctity of marriage by investing emotionally in their marriages.”

Happiness in marriage, and a greater responsibility, is also greater when the couples are involved in the community, have extended-family relationships, and are active in organized religion.

And, in contrast to the frequent pleas for men to share more equally with women in household tasks, the study argued that “objective inequality in the division of household labor does not always lead to perceptions of inequity, and consequently feelings of marital unhappiness, on the part of women.”

“Women are not happier in marriages marked by egalitarian practices and beliefs,” the study concluded. In fact, they noted that departing from the model of a male-breadwinning/female-homemaking model may well account for declines in marital quality.

Church teaching

The findings chime in with points raised in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Nos. 145-147 insist on the importance of equality and of guaranteeing for women equal dignity. They also observe that men and women complement each other and that in the union between a man and a woman “love and solidarity” is needed, not the “logic of self-centeredness and self-affirmation.”

In Nos. 248-51 the Compendium insists on a broader approach to the theme of family and work. Rather than talking about individual careers, it dwells on the importance of a family wage, which will enable the whole family to live decently. Instead of focusing on individual rights, the key to lasting fulfillment might be in a well-balanced family life.

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