Well, it's happened again. Women and issues of work and family have taken center stage in the mass media. This time, the controversy ignited in the second presidential debate when Mitt Romney recounted the need for workplace flexibility among female members of his cabinet as governor. Some charged that the comment was "out of touch" with the lives of modern women. Others saw the lauding of workplace flexibility as a subtle endorsement for women to continue shouldering the lion's share of work at home, with men avoiding such work.
But who is really "out of touch?" What kind of work and family life do women really want? A look at numerous polls and surveys—including the in-depth 2005 "Motherhood Study" repeatedly indicate that many women are working more than they want to be. While 41 percent of mothers were working full-time, only 16 percent wanted to be. The largest group of mothers (33 percent) wanted to be working part-time, with another 30 percent preferring options that would allow them to work from home. Those who were working in their preferred work hours felt less depressed, less stressed and more appreciated, confident and content than those working more than they wanted to be.
The critics of these statistics might argue that these numbers would dramatically shift — with a far larger group preferring full-time, intensive professional work — if men would only pick up the slack at home and allow them to pursue that goal.
But statistics across industrialized nations including Europe and the U.S. show that women are not homogenous in a desire to work many hours per week in a high-powered job. In fact, women consistently divide into three groups: 15-20 percent who prefer a work-centered lifestyle, where career achievement takes high priority; 15-20 percent who prefer a home-centered lifestyle, where family life takes high priority; and the largest group of women, 60-70 percent, who seek to combine paid jobs and family life without giving absolute priority to either.
Even among the work-centered group who prioritize career and achievement, women (and men) want options that allow them more flexibility in where and when they work. And they benefit substantially from that flexibility in terms of perceived outcomes in the work and family dimensions of their lives. Interestingly, for the firestorm Mitt Romney's comment sparked, one study found that protecting the dinner hour from work interference was important to positive relationships between work and feelings of success in personal, family and work dimensions of life.
There's no doubt many women once struggled against an unwelcoming professional world (and some do still). Women today benefit from the significant changes their efforts enabled. Hillary Clinton's recent comment that women who struggle with work and family balance should quit "whining" might reflect that toughness required in an earlier era.
It is also important to note that many of the women writing about these issues in the mass media likely represent the 15-20 percent of women who choose to prioritize careers. As a result, these discussions may arguably reflect more an idea about what women should want than the reality of what women actually want.
But the personal experiences and preferences of one group of women should not drown out the voices of the vast majority of women. Hillary Clinton herself seemed to align with Mitt Romney when she went on to say, "It's important for our workplaces to be more flexible and creative in enabling women to do high-stress jobs while caring for not only children but aging parents." Efforts to enable the full capacity of women in our society should be extended to all women — those who prefer a work-centered lifestyle, those who prefer a home-centered lifestyle and the large group of women who are trying to make things work somewhere in between. Such advocacy would genuinely lay claim to being a women's movement.
Jenet Jacob Erickson teaches in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University.