The balancing act: can the working woman really ‘have it all’?


In the past thirteen years, the percentage of working mothers in the UK increased from 63% to over 73%, with a further increase in the number of these women in full-time employment rather than part-time. To the untrained eye, it could be argued that the twenty-first century woman has finally found a way to have it all, to balance both children and a career, both home and work. What’s more, gender stereotypes must have ceased to exist; their male counterparts must have stepped up to assist in matters of childcare, housework, and domesticity. So why is paternity leave in this country capped at a mere two weeks, whilst a mother is entitled to a full year out of work? How are mothers expected to compete in the same work environment as fathers, whilst still carrying the societal weight of being the primary care giver to their children? Can these women really ‘have it all’?

Working women are therefore not able to decide if they want to ‘have it all’ on their own; their choice is affected by their environment

The answers to these questions are far from optimistic. The expectations placed upon women to have children are often disadvantageous to a woman’s career, as employers would have to cover the cost of maternity leave. In 2014, a study found that out of 500 managers surveyed, 40% would avoid hiring younger women to get around maternity leave. These managers, consciously or not, made their decisions based on the view that women would be unable to balance their work and home life. Working women are therefore not able to decide if they want to ‘have it all’ on their own; their choice is affected by their environment.

Furthermore, biological differences between the two sexes inhibit women from having children whilst maintaining physically demanding careers, such as sport. Last summer saw Lioness Ellen White retire from her football career, during which she scored 52 goals for England, before announcing her first pregnancy. 2015 US Open winner Flavia Pennetta abruptly announced her retirement in front of the crowd after getting engaged in the same year, marrying fellow tennis player Fabio Fognini in 2016, and giving birth in 2017. Unlike his wife, Fognini continued to play professionally in the years that followed the beginning of their life as a family. Basketball player Candace Parker chose a different approach, and decided to return to the WNBA with her daughter on the sidelines, breastfeeding her during half-time. This provided its own set of problems, including juggling the relationship she had with her daughter and her career. Female athletes provide evidence that ‘having it all’ is not attainable without its compromises, something that certainly does not affect male athletes to the same extent.

There is also a large amount of privilege required to maintain a home and work balance. The cost of childcare, for example, excludes women who cannot afford it from working full time. It is under these circumstances that following the path of least resistance and falling back on traditional gender roles becomes more appealing. Between 2018 and 2022, the cost of childcare has risen from an average of £236 a week to £274. It is consequently unsurprising that 43% of mothers have considered leaving their jobs as a result. Yet again these statistics prove that women are assumed to be responsible for family life.

Between 2018 and 2022, the cost of childcare has risen from an average of £236 a week to £274

It is apparent that for anyone raising a family, a sacrifice is necessary in order to juggle both having children and furthering a career. However, more often than not the onus of family responsibility falls on women due to a combination of outdated gender roles and expectations of the female sex often held by employers, as well as the physical demands of pregnancy and its impact on the body, with the latter commonly used as a justification for the former.  Although great steps have been made to create equal opportunities for all genders in the workplace, government policy and workplace environments must change in order to be truly accommodating to women. ‘Having it all’ should not be a struggle between work and home life; the two should be able to coexist.

Image credit: Eric Stoltz via Flickr

One thought on “The balancing act: can the working woman really ‘have it all’?

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