This study explores how men and women think about work-life balance and how these narratives impact family-friendly policies in the workplace. Specifically looking at STEM workers in the oil and gas industry, the study identifies how employees express their desire for work-life balance, and how those desires are articulated, or not, to their employers. The study finds significant differences in how men and women conceptualize balance but also finds that both men and women are unmotivated to push their employers for policy changes, albeit for different reasons. Mothers and prospective mothers experience intense work-life conflict, but view the conflict as resulting from personal choices. Fathers, in contrast, express satisfaction with their work-family balance, when supported by a traditional gendered division of labour at home. As a result, current policies intended to support work-life balance for men and women, such as flex-time arrangements, may only support the careers of men with traditionally gendered family arrangements.
Researchers distributed a survey to scientists and engineers working at a large multinational oil and gas company based in the US. Three years after the survey was administered, respondents were invited to participate in follow up interviews. Interviews were conducted with 43 scientists and engineers (24 men and 19 women). The average age of the respondents was 33, and the majority of participants were white (37 of 43). The high percentage of white participants highlights the underrepresentation of racial and ethnic minorities in the field and indicates that the perspectives represented in this study originate from a place of racial privilege. The median income of the sample was $155,000, placing respondents in the top five percent of all income earners in the US, also indicating that the narratives assessed in this study represent positions of class privilege. Interviewees were asked to reflect and elaborate on their reasons for entering the industry, work experience, and career aspirations. Interviews addressed career development and progression. Work-family conflict and work-life balance were not the focus of the interviews, but the topic emerged in every dialogue. Narrative accounts were analyzed with the goal of understanding how respondents’ own views of their career paths perpetuate or resist gender inequality.
Findings: Gendered approaches to reconciling family with career ambitions
Interview results found that women struggle to deal with the pressures of work and family, without significant support from partners or employers. Work-family conflict was the dominant theme with all women interviewed and concern about their abilities to reconcile motherhood with career ambition was pervasive. Women did not feel that they were able to achieve work-life balance that supported their careers and described being overlooked for promotions or professional development after taking time off to care for children. Feeling trapped between the demands of their work and family, many women chose to leave their positions. Women who continued to work said that they are exhausted from having “two full-time careers.”
The women interviewed characterized their decision to have a family as a personal choice. The dominant narrative around choice resulted in women viewing their needs for work-life balance as separate from the realm of responsibility of their employer.
As such, women have little to no expectation that their employer should provide accommodations to enable them to continue in their careers, nor do they consider joining with other employees to make a collective push for more effective policies. Women spoke of their choice to have children, but they did not acknowledge how the choices they made subsequent to having children were structured by the circumstances of their workplace. Not feeling entitled to ask for supportive work arrangements, opting out of careers felt like the only option for most women.
Family-friendly policies such as flex-time or telecommuting are intended to assist parents in managing the balance of work and family, but many organizations in the oil and gas industry favour occasional and personalized flexible work arrangements over policies that are universal and affect all employees. Implementation of policies is voluntary, and employees often need to bargain directly with their supervisors for special arrangements. Women interviewed expressed anxiety over the subjective nature of policy application. Interviewees also felt that expressing discontent was taboo and resistance to policies that did not adequately balance work and family was not an option.
The women and men interviewed all sought work-life balance, but only men felt that they were able to achieve it. Women were resigned to leaving their jobs if they started a family, but men saw balance as within their reach. Interestingly, for the men interviewed, accommodation and balance do not equate with time-off, in fact, it means the opposite.
Men viewed the freedom to work long hours as a type of balance; prioritizing family meant working more hours in order to climb the corporate ladder.
Many of the men interviewed had stay-at-home spouses who took on the roles of childcare and homemaking to facilitate this commitment to career. As an example, male interviewees cited the 9-80 policy, which involves working 80 hours over nine days (as opposed to ten), enabling employees to take every other Friday off of work. This policy was described by men as contributing to balance, even though it meant longer workdays. No women interviewed viewed the 9-80 policy as mitigating the stress of work-life balance. In addition, men who had families felt more secure in their career paths than their female counterparts. They were comfortable turning down assignments and were not concerned that doing so would be detrimental to their career.
- Current approaches to family-friendly policies in the oil and gas industry do not result in gender equality – Family-friendly policies that are voluntary, require the support of a supervisor or director, and do not offer true on-going reductions in hours or workload do not support women. These policies only serve the needs of male employees, particularly those with stay-at-home partners, and as such further entrench the unbalanced representation of men in this workforce.
- Change to policies that support families will not happen organically – This study arose out of a belief that the millennial generation, who favour work-life balance, will push for organizational change that will support families. This study uncovered how men and women conceptualize work-life balance differently. Men and women both desire work-life balance, but they do not request accommodations for reasons that are gendered. Women do not view work-life balance as possible, whereas men do not feel that accommodations are necessary to achieve balance. This gendered discourse of balance helps to explain why organizational change has not taken place to date, as both genders do not expect companies to provide accommodations beyond those already provided. As such, innovative changes to family-friendly policies are not likely to result from internal pressure from employees. Advocates for working parents should focus on state interventions, instead of pressuring companies to implement voluntary family-friendly policies.