A new study of over 1,000 American workers shows that women, regardless of age, socioeconomic status, marital status, or even whether they had children, feel guilty about juggling their work and home lives. Specifically, the women had negative feelings associated with “boundary-spanning work demands” after-hours, like taking a work-related phone call or checking their email. Guilt or distress about work seeping into home life was associated with women only, which is pretty shocking considering that this affected even women who weren’t married, or didn’t have children.
According to the study authors, this emotional distress is related to women who perceive themselves as transgressing normative social roles. They write in the study that “role blurring, as distinct from work-family conflict, may generate guilty for those who voluntarily choose or are forced to deal with work issues while at home.” In other words, even if there is no real conflict between work and family, and women have the ability to spend a significant amount of time at home, the reminder of working life represented by after-hours work contact is enough to trigger guilt in women, who are more likely to perceive that their employment prevents them from fulfilling family responsibilities.
So this isn’t about women’s actual ability to balance their work and home lives – their guilt stems from their anxiety about their perceived inability to do so. One of the study authors commented,
“Initially, we thought women were more distressed by frequent work contact because it interfered with their family responsibilities more so than men. However, this wasn’t the case. We found that women are able to juggle their work and family lives just as well as men, but they feel more guilty as a result of being contacted. This guilt seems to be at the heart of their distress.”
The study’s results are compelling, for a variety of reasons. Most of all, I think they signal the different emotional consequences of the new ability to be reached via cell phones and email at all times, which is something that everyone needs to learn how to navigate – it’s unsurprising that men would find this less distressing than women, but it’s interesting to see it spelled out so clearly. As Irin Carmon writes for Jezebel, “Women are culturally conditioned to feel guilty about doing exactly what their male counterparts are doing: earning a living.”
Photo from Mo Riza.