Summary

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.

Research

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.