Network Research Highlight: Work-Family Conflict is a Barrier for Women

By: Elizabeth Moraff

Work Science Center network member Mary F. Fox has focused much of her research on women in research and academia, particularly noting barriers to their advancement. Most recently, she published a reflection on Georgia Tech’s website detailing the insights present research has provided on the way work-family conflict (when work interferes with family) and family-work conflict (when family interferes with work) operate differently among men and women in various stages of their academic careers. One of study’s most startling findings, Fox notes, shows women at the most senior levels of their academic career report more family-work conflict than those in earlier stages (Fox, 2019). She ends her reflection by indicating men have benefited more from gender-neutral employee policies in academia than women have. For instance, gender-neutral parental leave policy implementation correlates with fewer women achieving tenure, according to some studies (Fox, 2019).

Oddly, the prevalence of work-family and family-work conflict among professional women contrasts with perceptions of barriers that Fox found in earlier research. In a study of women engineers and their experiences with international research collaboration, she and her co-investigators predicted that women would cite external barriers as more influential in whether or not they had collaborated on research with international partners (Fox, Realff, Rueda, & Morn 2017). In particular, they posited female engineers would list difficulty acquiring funding and international research collaborators as the two greatest barriers in conducting collaborative research internationally. They were right! Women engineers did, in fact, list those two external barriers as most daunting. They rated these barriers as significantly more important than conflicts with balancing family and work (Fox et. al 2017).

Interestingly, these same female engineers imagined that balancing work and family would pose a significant obstacle to other women, but not to themselves (Fox et. al, 2017). Essentially, the engineers in the study identified external hurdles, funding and finding research collaborators, as the factors hindering collaborative international research in their own lives, but they envisioned other women as falling prey to more internal tensions (Fox et. al, 2017). In that study’s conclusion, Fox and her co-investigators point out that organizational policies are much more adept at addressing external barriers. Funding programs could close some of the perceived gap in acquiring resources for research. Initiatives connecting international women in similar fields could aid in the cross-pollination necessary for international work. Unfortunately, organizational policies are much more clumsy at alleviating the internal stressors, like work-family and family-work conflict, as Fox reveals in her reflection (2019).

Still, these two works from Dr. Fox suggest an additional dilemma: even women in competitive academic fields have adopted a narrative that says women are more likely to struggle with family obligations in their career, but they often fail to acknowledge those tensions in their own lives. Indeed, even though the research Fox pulls from paints a picture of work-family and family-work conflict straining women at the highest echelons of academia, women in equivalent roles in engineering do not name such stress as their main problem. Perhaps this perception reflects reality, perhaps not. Research indicates that professional women are rewarded for downplaying family obligations (Fox, 2019). It’s possible that female engineers are loath to recognize this stigmatized stressor in their lives despite recognition of its prevalence in the lives of other women. More research would have to answer such a question. In the end, Fox’s two works do show that women in advanced fields face a variety of barriers to their achievement, and that organizations must continue to implement strategic, evidence-based policies to tackle them.

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