Why Women (nope) Men (nope) NO ONE Can “Have It All”

It is not surprising to me that “women still can’t have it all” and “men can’t have it all either.” The simple fact is  Women Men No One Can Have It All

Over the past generation or so, we’ve seen a huge shift in expectations and opportunities for women. While much progress has been made (and we are all the better for it), women still face stereotypes and discrimination as they “try to have it all” and move beyond traditional role expectations.

The current difficulties for women in the workplace and women trying to balance work and family were covered brilliantly by Anne-Marie Slaughter in a recent Atlantic cover story (and far more stupidly superficially by Ann Friedman in NY Magazine). Slaughter’s article deservedly received accolades and huge amounts of media attention, and I know I’m very late to the party in commenting on it. (And to her immense credit, Slaughter also wrote a great follow-up piece on men, work and family)

In short, Slaughter makes the case that women still face significant obstacles and difficulties as they try to remain heavily involved in their traditional roles (parenting, caretaking) while also expanding their involvement in traditional men’s roles (providing, working outside the home).

There is increasing evidence that the converse is increasingly true for men. Men now face significant obstacles and difficulties as they try to remain heavily involved in their traditional roles (providing, working outside the home) while also expanding their involvement in traditional women’s roles (parenting, caretaking).

Anecdotally, In a FWF guest blog, Neil Cohen, who became a SAHD after 18 years in corporate America, explained:

Following college, I spent 18 years in the corporate world – a man in a man’s world. For the past 18 months or so, I’ve been a dad in a mom’s world. And let me tell you, it’s Bizzaro World. And perhaps this will get me in trouble, but I feel like the workplace has come along much further for women than the parenting world has come for men (likely due to sheer numbers and the will of Marisa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg)…. Men may “own” the corporate world, but moms “own” the parenting world. We need to make in-roads in both directions, not just one… We have a long way to go.”

In fact, the Boston College Center for Work and Family’s excellent New Dads study provides compelling data that we indeed do need to make in-roads in both directions and that men are struggling as they try to “have it all.”

  • When surveyed about their work aspirations, 76% stated they wished to advance to a position of greater responsibility in their company, and 58% expressed a strong desire to move to senior management. This is in line with traditional expectations of men’s roles in the workplace.
  • However, 70% of these same men, when asked about their family lives, stated their family role was to be both caretaker and provider (as opposed to less than 10% who chose only one role or the other), and 65% agreed that both parents should equally share caregiving responsibilities.
  • While the majority of respondents said they spent between 2.5 and 4 hours per day with their children (significant progress from past generations), only 31% reported they met their stated standard of equal caregiving.

So, men want to advance their careers. Men also want to take a more active role in their families as fathers and caretakers, and have made progress. However, men are struggling to strike a balance and “have it all,” especially at home.

So, it is not surprising to me that “women still can’t have it all” and “men can’t have it all either.” The simple fact is NO ONE can have it all. There is only so much time and so much energy to divide between one’s two most important adult roles (family and work). In light of this, here are my thoughts about how the situation could be improved:

  • Fathers need to prioritize among life goals and roles and make fully conscious choices, knowing that there are trade-offs and that priorities can change over the course of a lifetime (see here)
  • Couples need to continually communicate about what arrangements are best for the family, and what is best for each individual (see here)
  • Workplaces need to allow more formal and informal flexibility- the New Dads study also found that over 70% of working men used informal flextime or informal part-time telecommuting, but less than 10% of men used formal WF policies, citing fear of negative career consequences.
  • Men need to be strategic about negotiating for work flexibility (see here), and should actively pursue informal or invisible ways to address family concerns. With effective informal arrangements, men (and women) can better balance work and family responsibilities, continue to perform at a high level of work, and escape being branded as less serious about one’s career.
  • Workplace Cultures and Societal Expectations need to change- To put family on par with career is somehow still too progressive for many organizations and for society as a whole. Articles entitled Real men don’t need work-life balance, are still being published. Culture is likely to change slowly over time as the next generation reaches top management, and when those (both men and women) who struggled with work-family issues attain levels of influence and leadership (see here)

I’ll let the authors of the New Dads study have the final word:

“Fathers want to have more time to be with their children and they aspire to do more at home. At the same time, they have equally strong desires to be successful at work and advance their careers. Thus, we are left with an image of today’s fathers as caring, committed and conflicted, struggling to be engaged parents while striving for advancement in their careers. This leaves us with the obvious question: can they have it all? Can they increase their caregiving role without sacrificing their advancement goals in the workplace? Or must they adjust their expectations- redefining what it means to be successful in both domains?”

–Harrington, Van Deuson & Humberd, The New Dad: Caring, Committed and Conflicted, Boston College Center for Work and Family.

What do you think about the struggle to “have it all”? Where have you succeeded or fallen short? Let’s discuss in the comments section.

13 thoughts on “Why Women (nope) Men (nope) NO ONE Can “Have It All”

  1. A great blog and so true. My entire existence seems to be spent attempting to “have it all” despite knowing that in reality it isn’t always an attainable goal! But, this apparent futility does’t concern me anymore. I honestly don’t think we should look negatively at aiming for having it all, as long as we stop beating ourselves up over not always managing to achieve it. How many of us have tried to teach our kids that the important thing is to try your hardest, do your best, accept and learn from what goes wrong or doesn’t work, and then get back out there and try again? Improvements and in-roads absolutely still need to be made on both sides for all parents, and it may take another generation or 2 before we start seeing these becoming the norm in society, so lets all get out there and start trying!

    • Thanks, Siobhan- for reading and for the great comment.

      I agree there’s nothing wrong with aspiring for difficult goals and success in many areas. However, I’ve seen too many people who do not recognize that there are always tradeoffs, and that you need to prioritize.

      I also wanted to point out that this generation of dads have a struggle that mirrors that of women- expanding their energies into their “second” role

      Finally, I hope more folks can recognize that while individuals can’t have it all, maybe a family can- by dividing up roles into something other than primary provider/primary caretaker.

  2. Very interesting post — I was intrigued by Neil Cohen’s comment that “moms own the parenting world.” I remember one Friday morning I took my daughter to the library for a book reading/arts & crafts event. Out of ten parents in attendance, I was the only male, which made me a bit uncomfortable. One of the moms even said something like “awww look at you being superdad today.” Even though I was very happy to have that time with my daughter, I started thinking to myself — “Should I really be here? Maybe I should be in my office writing up a research paper or prepping my classes.”

    I am not good at trade-offs in general, so I have had to struggle with this issue of wanting to “have it all.” But I really like Scott’s idea that a family can achieve it together.

  3. Hey Scott, thanks for your work. I am thrilled to see how much men’s work/family issues have grown in visibility. I agree that there is a mirror effect at play here in therms of both men and women expanding into their non-traditional roles. And we’re seeing some growing pains in both directions, it seems.
    I also like how you frame this as a family having it all, instead of looking at individuals as isolated actors.
    I do, however, take issue with a couple points:
    – after reading both of Slaughter’s articles I’m not sure she would conclude that “no one” can have it all. She gives a number of examples to illustrate the opposite, in fact, and I felt like her overall point was highlighting what changes need to be made so that “having it all” becomes the norm (for both sexes).
    – I also bristle at the “prioritize” and “trade-offs” language because it assumes this is a zero-sum game. Yes, the number of hours in a day are finite. But there are ways to optimize how those hours are spent that doesn’t necessarily require trading quality work for quality parenting, or vice versa. If the Leader of the Free World can have dinner with his family almost every night and attend their basketball games, and exercise, and pursue enriching “hobbies” (like reading and writing) on a daily basis shouldn’t we take that as a sign that it’s not about having to make painful choices anymore? (Granted he also gets less sleep and is aging at twice the normal rate, but still!) 🙂

    • Kari- thanks for reading and for your FANTASTIC COMMENT.

      I agree that the parallels between men’s and women’s challenges as they both expand into non-traditional roles is striking.

      You have also challenged me to think more thoroughly on your two points.

      I hear what you are saying about Slaughter’s articles and about the president. I’m afraid that I cannot reasonably expect mere mortals to have the creativity, force of will and energy level of someone who can climb to their achievements.

      IMO, for the rest of us, “what we need and/or what we want” may be achievable. “All” is not. Adults need to set priorities and make choices- and a choice necessarily means setting something aside.

      Thanks again for reading and contributing such a great comment. Please stick around.

      Scott J. Behson, Ph.D.
      Associate Professor of Management
      Fairleigh Dickinson University
      201-692-7233 (work)

      Sent on the Sprint® Now Network from my BlackBerry®

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