Think about work-family conflict and the image that comes to mind is probably a woman trying to balance her career and her kids. The idea that women are the only ones who struggle to have it all is so deeply engrained in our collective mindset that it seems unthinkable that men would experience that problem on the same scale. But here’s the thing: according to a massive new analysis—250,000 workers across the U.S., Europe and Asia—work and family are hard to manage for all genders alike.
And this, University of Georgia psychologist Kristen Shockley and her colleagues note, sheds new light on what they call “a popular press-science paradox,” aka the “ubiquitous” association in the media (and in many people’s minds) that work-family conflict is predominantly felt by women, even though this isn’t supported by the evidence.
In their Journal of Applied Psychology meta-analysis, Shockley and her team culled more than 350 studies spanning over three decades of research and found that men and women across a host of work and family circumstances were “more alike than different” in their reports of how much work interfered with family and family interfered with work—all of which challenges the conventional wisdom.
Though small, some gender differences did appear. Moms reported that family interfered more with work than dads did, and both men and women in dual-earning relationships reported more tension between work and family. Similarly, when both partners worked similar jobs—as professors, hotel managers, business owners or the like—women had more work-family conflict than men.
Job autonomy—or the degree of freedom available in a job— also had a gender link: guys felt more of it, which is associated with less conflict between family life and work life. Interestingly, the analysis did find that women do more unpaid labor at home than men, but they also have stronger boundaries around family and allow fewer intrusions from work, reducing conflict. Still, those differences were surprisingly small; people, it appears, are people.
These results have a ton of practical implications. Other studies have found that men are penalized more at work for having conflicts at home and feel more stigmatized than women for using flexibility and other work-family management policies, while women are seen as less promotable because, being female, they’re assumed to be more family oriented. (It’s called the “commitment penalty,” and it’s detrimental for everyone.)
In a poetic bit of symmetry, being honest and open about how both men and women struggle with work-family conflict could also help us move toward gender equality. Men tend to feel uncomfortable voicing work-family concerns because of the stigma that comes with it, its violation of traditional masculine gender roles and possible career repercussions. And if guys also started using more work-life management policies—just 9 percent of workplaces even offer paid paternity leave in the U.S., opposed to 21.6 percent offering maternity leave, and the average dad only takes one day of paid or unpaid leave for every month the mom takes—then women would be punished less at work for having domestic, personal lives.
This, in turn, has big time consequences for the kids in these families: Shockley and her colleagues note that the more time a dad spends with a new child, the better their bonding, the higher the mother’s well-being and wages and the more egalitarian the familial division of labor.
“Although we acknowledge biological sex differences in childbirth, the lack of support for men is unjust,” they argue, particularly in light of the fact that work-family conflict is so prevalent for men, too. Being able to bring our whole selves to work isn’t just a women’s issue—and the sooner we realize that, the better it will be for all of us.