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Why do women struggle to achieve work-life balance?

By Heidi Moawad


Is work-life balance consistent with professional ambition? A recent study concludes that young women are now proclaiming that they don’t want to be leaders. Does this data suggest that young women who do want to be leaders should not bother to ‘lean in’ by acquiring expert level knowledge, attaining specialized skills and pursuing experience-building work projects when they have the opportunity? Or does this research mean that women should go ahead and work hard prior to having families, but remain in subordinate positions throughout their careers? Why bother to work so hard early in life only to subsequently decline promotions and leadership roles due to an eventual lack of willingness to sacrifice everything to achieve notable success?

Photo by George Joch/Argonne National Laboratory, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr.
Photo by George Joch/Argonne National Laboratory, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr.

Furthermore, when young women cannot help but notice that the majority of leadership roles in almost every professional field are held by men, they cannot be faulted for concluding that the reason for this reality may be that achievement, recognition, and higher pay in the workforce might not be compatible with family life for women, even in our modern times. However, there are many serious drawbacks extending beyond the workplace for women who do not pursue educational recognition and professional advancement. First and foremost, the difference in pay and benefits (such as health benefits) between jobs that require high level education and those that do not can leave women and their children dependent on less than favorable personal family arrangements. Yet there is no doubt that even as doors open for women, the reality remains that there are only twenty-four hours in a day.

How can young women reconcile the genuine need for work-life balance with the fact that they may ultimately find themselves declining the numerous prestigious leadership opportunities available to them once they become highly qualified? Women may even take this long-term restriction of goals to heart and perform less effectively during schooling and at work, so that they ultimately will not be given the choice of whether to decline or accept leadership roles. This apparent paradox often results in ambivalence among promising young women during their educational and early occupational years. There is an answer to this very real dilemma. A genuine solution lies in the fact that women need to actively create new definitions of leadership positions in the workforce. As more and more women continue to enter into prominent fields, these women need to redefine the rules for success so that they can continue to maintain a balanced and satisfying family life compatible with mid-career and senior-level success. Just because the road to respect has traditionally involved hours of face time and long days in the office that does not mean  it must continue to be this way. In fact, part-time workers often forgo long, possibly wasteful breaks during the workday in favor of an abbreviated, yet more productive, workday.

For physicians in particular, where female medical students have outnumbered male medical students for several years, the established route to professional credibility and an esteemed reputation involves extensive work hours, on call duties, and a sense of pride in constant availability. Yet over the years this work ethic has not functioned to protect physicians from the crisis of declining reimbursement and increasing bureaucracy. Instead, this situation has actually served to exacerbate the lack of economic viability for women who want to work part-time. Malpractice premiums are so high that often the low reimbursement for part-time work cannot be sufficient to cover the costs of overhead.

Clearly the traditional rules have not worked. Women professionals must lead, not only by securing the stamp of approval from higher-ups, but by becoming valuable enough and skilled enough to have the leverage to insist on new rules, better rules that reward quality rather than quantity. Consequently, if women anticipate that they may choose to forgo intense work either briefly or even long-term in favor of work-life balance, an early investment of time and education and training is of great benefit. Women who ‘lean in’ early in educational years gain the skills, confidence, and credibility to be able to make their own rules if they chose to do so later. Leaning in early on does not have to translate into a lifetime of difficult sacrifices and painful choices. Hard work and commitment can position one to be able to find and attain non-traditional careers that are challenging, fascinating, and compensate well on an hourly bases, even allowing self-limited work hours to be lucrative and fulfilling. The key is opening one’s eyes to be able to make the environment adapt to the changing workforce—not reluctantly accepting antiquated rules that reward long hours rather than results and creativity. Those who have taken the initiative to seize the undefined opportunities and create new roles have found that early dedication to building valuable experience is extremely rewarding because while it can pave the road for traditional leadership roles, it also opens doors for non-traditional leadership roles that can change the future of the profession itself.

Heidi Moawad M.D. is author of Careers Beyond Clinical Medicine, a resource for health care professionals who are interested in professionally adapting to the changing medical environment while improving the health care system. Dr. Moawad teaches at John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio and in a recipient of The McGregor Course Development Grant Award in Globalization Studies. Read her previous blog post “How will a changing global landscape affect health care providers?”

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Recent Comments

  1. Allison O'Kelly

    Heidi, you make some excellent points on the need for young women to “lean in” in the beginning of their career to afford themselves more opportunities in the future. And, creating new rules so that women can continue working, even while raising children, is also an important step–we know from experience at Mom Corps, as we operate through a ROWE, or results-oriented work environment. Not only are our employees happier, they are incredibly productive. You’re right, it is critical that we “make the environment adapt to the changing workforce,” to open the doors for non-traditional leadership roles. -Allison O’Kelly, founder/CEO Mom Corps (www.momcorps.com)

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