Limit More: Young Women Are Hearing They Can't Do It All

Young women hear they can't do it all and so they limit their career options early. We need a new model for dual income parents. And women need to lead the way.

With all discussion about how the workplace is inhospitable to women and families, many young women make limiting career choices early on to give themselves the flexibility they anticipate needing later when they are mothers. They assume it's what they are supposed to do. They misinterpret the message (or maybe hear it loud and clear). Rather than garnering the power they have to change the system, young women are hearing that they need to make their career ambitions smaller so they can make room for their families.

Instead, we need a mindset change at home. We need to challenge the assumption that women are the main caretakers of families and proprietors of the home. We can replace this flawed assumption with a new one; one that assigns responsibility to both parents for parenting and for earning a living. Once this shift happens, workplaces will respond and become more accommodating because their workforce, both male and female, demands it.

Where does it start? It starts with women. In our research, we interviewed 118 college-educated women and found numerous examples of women limiting their careers because of the caretaker assumption. One woman changed her career three times to accommodate her spouse and family and still ended up with a job that didn't support her. One woman loved to travel for work but couldn't because her husband's job was not flexible at all so she felt she had to be. Many of these women admitted they were "the boss" at home, delegating tasks to willing husbands while owning all of the family responsibility. But there were also many women who shared parenting and enjoyed rich, rewarding careers because they believed a different paradigm.

How did they do this? By applying leadership -- not management -- skills at home. This means they thought about the big picture: My career is a long-term investment in "me" and we are both responsible for the family. This perspective opens the door to rethinking how to make it happen. Instead of, "Can I make more money than it costs for daycare?" women can reframe childcare as a short-term investment in both careers ("my husband needs child care too"), like college was, and spend accordingly on the help they need. Instead of doing it all at home, women can learn to live with a messy house and a "good enough" parenting style. They can bring their needs into the negotiation rather than blindly absorb the next task onto a never-ending list. They can say "no" to school projects, be strategic about volunteering, and share sick day coverage with their spouses.

Leaning in to career does not mean "try harder," as has been commonly misinterpreted. Instead, women need to prioritize what they lean in to so they can "work smarter." For example, when one woman we interviewed was overwhelmed with projects, she went to her manager and said, "I cannot complete these projects to the quality expected in the time required. Which are the priorities?" Together she and her manager figured out where she should put her energy. Instead of pushing herself to the point of burnout, leaning out or leaving the company without her talent, she collaborated, prioritized, and focused her energy on what mattered most.

This same logic can apply at home. When one woman decided to take a promotion at work, she knew she couldn't continue to manage most of the household chores as well. So she negotiated with her family about what they could drop, what could be outsourced, and who would do what. Once responsibility for the home and family was shared, how the work got done became a negotiation.

Essentially, what women need to do is drop the rules dictating how to be an "ideal" mother or woman. We advocate a new way -- the Orange Line, where career, family and life are integrated. Women need to move beyond the either career or family debate and figure out how to build a life they enjoy.

Isn't it smoother, less stressful, and more productive when one partner focuses on career and the other on the family? Actually no, that's not what we found. Women who sub-optimize their careers are less fulfilled overall and leave themselves financially vulnerable to divorce, their husband's unemployment, illness, and death. Reducing or giving up half of the family income as well as the relationships, experiences, and achievements of the workplace left many women regretful. At times life is messy and stressful for everyone. But when work, family, and life are integrated, life is rich and full.

Take interviewee Cecelia, for example. A sales manager with four children, she loves her dual career arrangement. "I'm good at delegating at work and home. My husband (a business owner) and I are 50/50 -- he does the morning shift and I do the evening shift. He can do all of the kids' stuff, such as diapers, baths, packing lunches, etc. If one kid gets sick, he can grab all four and truck them off to the doctor's office." At work, she left a family un-friendly work environment that demanded too much of her time. She took a lateral move to a healthier work environment and then was promoted within a year. "If I'm ever overwhelmed at work or home, I take a mental health day... (I feel) they are just as important as any other sick time."

Dual-career families who share responsibility for home exist and their numbers are growing. We need to make sure young women hear their stories alongside the advice to lean in, otherwise they will naturally see a robust career as an impediment to having a family and a life.