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Bryn Mawr Work and Family Project

 Summary of Project Findings

Additional online resource: Women, Gender and Culture: A New Initiative

Background

Balancing work and family responsibilities is a challenge faced by many working parents today.  In this era of cell phones, pagers, and emails, the boundaries between work lives and home lives have become increasingly blurred, leaving many parents to wonder about how to organize and prioritize their multiple role commitments.  Previous research has shown that daily work and family experiences are linked to parents' psychological well-being and family relationship quality.  As many working parents can attest to, having multiple roles can be both physically and mentally invigorating.  However, research indicates that parents' experience of tension or conflict between major roles can have an adverse impact on their emotional state and the quality of their interactions with spouses and children.  Almost all previous research on work-family conflict has focused on parents' global recollections about conflict (i.e., how much conflict do you generally experience?), rather than their actual day-to-day experiences of work-family conflict. 

The Bryn Mawr Work and Family Project was designed to take a closer and more careful look at parents' actual daily experiences of work-family conflict.  We also aimed to investigate associations between daily work-family conflict and other aspects of parents' daily experience and functioning.  177 Bryn Mawr alumnae and their partners participated in this research by first completing general questionnaires about their work and family lives (Phase 1).  Participants then completed intensive, daily questionnaires over the course of five days to document their everyday work and family life experiences (Phase 2).

Demographics of participants

            We recruited Bryn Mawr alumnae from the graduating classes of 1980-1983. This cohort was chosen, in part, because they had participated in a survey about their future work and family plans while they were Bryn Mawr undergraduates. These women were also at an age that they were likely to have children at home and be in important phases of their work lives.

A total of 109 eligible alumnae and 68 of their spouses or partners completed the first phase of the study. Most participating parents lived in the United States, although there were several international participants as well.  The mean age of the alumnae who participated in the study was 42 years and the mean age of spouses was 45 years.  Ninety percent of the participating spouses were husbands, and 10% were women who were either married to or living with their alumnae partners in a committed relationship.  The alumnae, as well as their spouses and partners, were highly educated. Forty-five percent of alumnae and 38% of spouses held doctoral degrees, and 42% of alumnae and 29% of spouses held Master's level (including Law) degrees.  The remainder of the sample (13% of alumnae and 31% of spouses) held Bachelor's degrees [1] .  Ninety-nine of the alumnae who participated in the study worked in paid employment.  On average, they worked 37 hours per week.  The 66 spouses who worked outside the home were employed an average of 46 hours per week. Median annual family income was $130,000.  Table 1 summarizes other demographic information about participants, including ethnicity, marital status, and number and ages of children.

Table 1

Demographics on 177  participants

Demographic

 

% of Sample

Ethnicity

 

 

 

Caucasian
Hispanic
African-American
Asian-American
Other
 

91
3
2
2
2
 

Marital Status

 

 

 

Married
Separated/Divorced
Living w/partner in committed relationship
Single
 

83
6
6
5
 

Number of Children*

 

 

 

One
Two
Three
Four
Five
 

34
46
17
2
1
 


*Under the age of 18 and living at home with participating parent(s).  Children ranged in age from newborn to 18 years.  Mean age of children was 9 years.

A relatively high percentage of the eligible Bryn Mawr Alumnae (classes 1980-1983 with children under the age of 18 living in their home) participated in the study.  The ethnicity of participants was similar to Bryn Mawr alumnae from these classes.   The alumnae who chose to participate in the current study were more likely than the typical alumnae from those years to hold doctoral degrees.  Study participants were also more likely than their graduating class peers to be married, which is not surprising given that the content of the current study may have pulled for married participants with its focus on children and the intersection of work and parenting issues.

 Of the 177 participants who completed Phase 1 of our study, 130 (76 alumnae and 54 spouses) completed the daily questionnaires in Phase 2.  Participants who completed both phases of the study did not differ from the 177 participants who completed only Phase 1 in terms of age, number of children, mean age of children, weekly work hours, education level, or marital status.  The families who completed Phase 2 did report a significantly lower median family income than those who completed only Phase 1.  The median income for families participating in Phase 2 was $120,000.  Across all participants, an impressive 95% of total possible daily diary reports were returned.

Main Goals and Results of Bryn Mawr Work and Family Project

Goal # 1:

In 1980, current Bryn Mawr students were surveyed on a range of issues including future work and family plans. The majority of students who completed the survey reported that they hoped to have both a family and a full-time job, and many foresaw a challenge ahead in trying to balance these important life activities.  One of our major aims in recruiting the 1980-1983 Bryn Mawr graduating cohort was to see how this group was faring in terms of balancing their ambitious career and family plans.

Finding #1:

            Bryn Mawr alumnae and their partners are generally satisfied with their lives.  Participants' responses to a global life satisfaction questionnaire suggested, on average, high overall life satisfaction.  That is, the high-achieving, busy individuals who participated in our study are relatively satisfied with the way their lives have turned out.

Implications: Busy, high-achieving, ambitious parents can find high satisfaction in their overall lives.

Goal #2:

Another primary goal of the Bryn Mawr Work and Family Project was to map parents' day-to-day experience of work-family conflict over the course of a five-day work week.  We defined work-family conflict as a combination of time-related conflicts between work and family role responsibilities (e.g., staying late at work interfered with attending a child's soccer game; or, staying home with a sick child delayed making a project deadline at work) and psychologically-based strain-related conflicts (e.g., a stressful family experience interfered with a parent's ability to fully concentrate at work; or, a demanding day at work interfered with giving full attention to children at home in the evening).  We were interested in whether work-family conflict ebbed and flowed or remained relatively stable across the work week.

Finding #2a:

Parents' reports of work-family conflict fluctuated on a daily basis over the course of the work week.That is, individual parents reported experiencing different levels of work-family conflict on different days. Figure 1 shows an example of daily fluctuation in one couple's work-family conflict. For both parents in this couple, there was a general decrease in work-family conflict towards the end of the work week, suggesting that the stresses and strains of balancing work and family responsibilities may lessen as Friday approaches.

Figure 1

Daily variability in work-family conflict for one couple over the five-day work week

Alumna                                                                 Spouse

                  

Implications: While past research has focused on work-family conflict as a chronic stressor, our findings suggest that work-family conflict is not a stable phenomena but varies across the work week. Results of numerous previous investigations have suggested that daily stressors play a considerable role in an individual's overall well-being, possibly more so than do major life events. Thus, our findings regarding daily work-family conflict may have important implications for working parents' overall psychological functioning. The results also provide novel information regarding potential trends in work-family conflict over the course of a work week.  For example, as our sample graphs suggest, there may be a "TGIF" ("Thank God its Friday") phenomenon for many parents' experience of daily work-family conflict.

Finding #2b:

On average, most of these high achieving parents reported relatively little work-family conflict on a daily basis.  When parents' daily reports of work-family conflict were aggregated over the work week, their responses suggested that most reported experiencing little to no work-family conflict on average.  However, the daily variability in work-family conflict suggested that many parents experienced moderate to high levels of work-family conflict on particular days of the week.

Implications: As a daily stressor, work-family conflict may not be entirely pervasive, at least in samples similar to these highly educated, high achieving, relatively prosperous families. That is, although some days may be particularly tough in terms of managing work and family role responsibilities, other days may be relatively stress-free.

Finding #2c:

            Parents' daily experience of work-family conflict may be different from their global notions of how much work-family conflict they experience.  Parents reported significantly less day-to-day work-family conflict on the daily questionnaires than they reported on the Phase 1 questionnaires that inquired about their overall impressions of how much work-family conflict they generally experience.  The disparity between parents' daily and retrospective reports of work-family conflict may be due to differences in parents' approach to and interpretation of the two different types of measures.  It may also be that parents base their global notions of work-family conflict on more than just their day-to-day experience of conflict between work and family role responsibilities.  For example, some parents may base their responses to a retrospective questionnaire about work-family conflict on their memories of their most conflicted moments, even if those moments are relatively rare in their daily lives.

Implications: One possibility is that parents' responses to global, retrospective measures of work-family conflict may be influenced by social conventions that affect ideas about how much work-family conflict working parents should experience or should report. Looking at both global and daily reports of work-family conflict may be important for gaining a more complete understanding of parents' experiences of tension between work and family roles.

Goal #3:

A primary goal of the Project was to investigate whether daily fluctuations in work-family conflict were linked to fluctuations in other aspects of parents' day-to-day functioning.  Here, we focused on parents' nightly mood (e.g., feeling vigorous, on edge, discouraged) and the quality of their nightly interactions with children (e.g., was the time they spent together was enjoyable, hectic, warm).

Finding #3:

            Daily reports of work-family conflict were related to other aspects of daily parental functioning.  Fluctuations in work-family conflict were related to the amount of time parents spent with their children in the evening, but this relationship depended on the number of hours parents worked each day. On days when parents worked more hours, their reports of work-family conflict were higher if they also spent relatively less time with their children. That is, for the parents in our sample, work-family conflict was highest on days when they spent more time at work and less time with their children.

            Daily work-family conflict was also linked to parenting experiences at home in the evening. On days when parents experienced more work-family conflict, they reported that their moods were more negative in the evening and that there was more tension in their nightly interactions with children than on days when they experienced less work-family conflict.

Implications:  As a daily stressor, work-family conflict may have important implications for parents' daily mood and the quality of their interactions with their children.  Over time, accumulated daily stress related to work-family conflict may be associated with decreased overall well-being and more tense family relationships.

Goal #4: 

Finally, we were interested in whether parents' overall life satisfaction and satisfaction in their partner relationships (where applicable) were related to how strongly their daily work-family conflict experience was associated with their evening mood and interactions with children.  For example, would parents who reported more satisfying couple relationships be less likely to engage in more tense interactions with their children on days when work-family conflict was high than would parents who reported being less satisfied in their couple relationships?

Finding #4:

            Overall life satisfaction and marital satisfaction makes a difference in terms of associations among daily work-family conflict and other aspects of daily functioning. Parents who reported higher overall life satisfaction were less likely than parents with lower life satisfaction to experience heightened negative evening mood on days when they also experienced higher work-family conflict. In addition, alumnae who reported higher life satisfaction were less likely to report heightened tension in interactions with their children on days when they reported higher work-family conflict.  On high work-family conflict days, parents with higher marital satisfaction were also less likely to display increased emotional distress in the evenings than were parents with lower marital satisfaction.

Implications: A more positive outlook on life and a more satisfying and supportive marital relationship may assist parents in coping with the daily stresses of work and family life. It is also possible that patterns of links between daily work-family conflict and family life may shape life and relationship satisfaction.


Acknowledgements

For their support of this research, we would like to thank:

Professor Paul Grobstein and the Center for Science in Society

President Nancy Vickers

Wendy Greenfield and the staff of the Alumnae Association

The Emmy Pepitone Graduate Research Fund

We extend tremendous gratitude to all of the parents who took the time to participate in this study.  We were thrilled to receive such an enthusiastic response to our research.



[1] One spouse was working on his Bachelor's degree at the time of the study.




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