How Men, Women See Work-Life Balance Differently

A new Families and Work Institute survey of almost 2,800 employed people reflects some surprising changes in how men and women see themselves both in the workplace and at home. Women are contributing more financially than in times past, and men are doing more child care. But even as men spend more time with their kids, the challenges of balancing a career and parenting duties are taking their toll. Three out of five men reported some or a lot of stress related to workplace-family life balance—about 25 percent more than in the late 1970s. (For women the numbers have stayed virtually the same, at around 45 percent.)

One thing hasn't changed: partners still disagree about who does more around the house. Men give themselves higher marks than women do for helping with child care, cleaning and cooking. (Fifty-six percent of husbands say they do nearly equal or even a greater amount of cooking, while wives report only 25 percent of their husbands do.) But Neil Chethik, author of "VoiceMale: What Husbands Really Think About Their Marriages, Their Wives, Sex, Housework, and Commitment," explains that this perception gap may stem from the model that men are working from. "When it comes down to it, many men come from a generation where fathers did little [homemaking work], and it could be that men compare themselves not as much to their wives but to their fathers," he says. So even if they're doing twice as much as their dads did, it may still not measure up to what women perceive as an equal division of all the work.

The study looked at a variety of other questions about how men and women view parenting and work. Highlights:

1. "I can't stay, I have to go pick up my kid." More men have been uttering those words or some variation thereof in the past decade. In 2008, 31 percent of women said that their spouses took equal or more responsibility for the care of their children. In 1992, it was only 21 percent. And on average, though employed moms still spend even more time with their kids than employed dads do, working dads are now spending three hours per workday with their kids under 13 (working moms spend about four hours). Among younger working parents (those under 29), dads spend even more time—4.2 hours on average—and moms spend 5.1 hours. The study's authors think these changes might be because parents may have more flexibility to work from home, defining "spending time with children" differently, and they may be spending less time on themselves.

2. Can working moms still be good moms? Among both men and women, about two in five report that it's better "if the man earns the money and the woman takes care of the home and children." (That's down from about three in five in 1977.) Eighty percent of women believe that a mom who works outside the home can have just as good a relationship with her children as one who is home, and 67 percent of men agree. (According to recent federal numbers, about 70.5 percent of American women with children under 18 work outside the home—including 60 percent of mothers with children under 3.)

3. Millennial ambitions. Women under 29 are just as likely as men to want jobs with greater responsibility—even if they have kids at home. In 1992, if moms under 29 had children at home, only 60 percent of them wanted jobs with more responsibility, compared with 78 percent of women without children, but now the numbers have averaged out—about 66 percent of women want more responsibility at work, regardless of whether they have children. And men and women under 29 both report wanting more responsibility at about the same rate, too.

4. She's bringing home more bacon. Women are contributing more to family incomes than in the past. In fact, about a quarter of surveyed women in 2008 had annual earnings at least 10 percent higher than their partners'. And on average, women contributed 44 percent of family income, up from 39 percent in 1997.

5. We like what we know. Men and women whose own mothers worked outside the home all or most of the time were more likely to agree that full-time working moms can still have good relationships with their children than those whose mothers worked none or only some of the time.

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