Women Cannot Yet Have It All

Key Takeaways:

  • Recent argument in the Supreme Court have suggested that women can “have it all.”
  • However, research suggests that women often face challenges when they try to achieve career and family success.
  • Organizations and individuals should be thoughtful about how leaders can be set up for complete work-family success.

Last month, the US Supreme Court heard arguments on a case that has the potential to ban abortions in the United States and overturn Roe v. Wade.  In this case, many arguments were made as to why abortion should no longer be legal in the United States, but one that was made that is relevant to discussions of leadership here at Lead Read Today had to do with whether or not women can “have it all.”

The specific argument that was made in this case was that women no longer struggle to achieve career as well as family success (in other words, women can have it all – a job and children).  As Mississippi’s attorney general Lynn Fitch said, “In these last 50 years, women have carved their own ways to achieving a better balance for success in their professional and personal lives.”  This suggests that women do not need to have an abortion in order to succeed at their jobs; this suggests women can have it all and do both.

But is this true?

Ample research suggests that unfortunately, this is not yet the case for many women (though not all, of course).  Much research tells us that women who try to achieve career success while also having a family can at times face challenges and struggles – and this is especially true for female leaders.

(I should note that although “having it all” is often a question framed in terms of women at work, it is not exclusive to women.  As I have written about before, men can also face challenges if they try to balance family demands with their career.  For the purpose of this post, though, I will focus on women as that is relevant to the current Supreme Court case).

A recent study by Lynn Offermann and her colleagues looked at this – specifically in the context of female leaders who take maternity leave[1].  This study was an in-depth analysis of the long-term careers of 101 female leaders; they surveyed these women in 1985 when they were leaders in college and then again 28 years later when they were leaders in their organizations.  A number of interesting findings emerged but one in particular was relevant to this discussion: women who took a longer-than-standard-length maternity leave were less likely to advance as far into senior leadership and were paid less than those who did not.  Interestingly, these women reported being equally satisfied with their careers – but it seems that those who emphasized their family a bit more faced consequences at their job.

Why is this?  A recent study by Thekla Morgenroth and Madeline Heilman sheds light onto this[2].  Specifically, they asked people to examine situations where women chose to take maternity leave from their job or not and then asked the people to evaluate the women.  In their study, women were evaluated negatively in some way no matter what.  When a woman chose to take leave to care for her child, she was rated negatively as an employee.  On the other hand, if she chose not to take leave, she was rated negatively as a mother.  Women can face tough decisions that have negative consequences regardless of what path they choose.

Looking at these two studies together, it seems that women are penalized for seeming to choose one domain (either work or the home) over the other – and this has leadership implications.  These penalties seem to hinder women from advancing far in their leadership careers (and likely hinder them from pursuing leadership opportunities in the first place!).

In short: in general, most women cannot yet “have it all!”

Whether or not abortion should be legal is beyond the scope of what I am talking about today.  However, I do want to strongly underline the fact that an argument against abortion because “women can easily balance careers and family without difficulty” is not true and has not been supported by research.  Indeed, the research suggests the opposite, unfortunately.

Organizations need to be cognizant of these implications.  What policies are in place that may inadvertently discourage leaders (male and female) from having a career and a family?  What policies are in place that support this?  Individuals should be cognizant of this as well.  What implicit biases do you have against leaders who are career- as well as family-oriented?  On the other hand, in what ways have you personally supported this?

And of course: what kind of leadership talent are organizations losing because someone was forced to choose their family and give up their career?  Let’s work for a world where leaders truly can have it all – so that organizations and employees can be as effective as possible!

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[1] Offermann, L. R., Thomas, K. R., Lanzo, L. A., & Smith, L. N. (2020). Achieving leadership and success: A 28-year follow-up of college women leaders. The Leadership Quarterly, 31.

[2] Morgenroth, T., & Heilman, M. E. (2017). Should I stay or should I go? Implications of maternity leave choice for perceptions of working mothers. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 72, 53–56.

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.