Exploring Norwegian mothers’ withdrawals from high-commitment careers.

Preferences, constraints or schemas of devotion? Exploring Norwegian mothers’ withdrawals from high-commitment careers.


Work Research Institute, Norway. sigtona.halrynjo@afi-wri.no


Despite decades of focus on gender equality and work-family balance, parenthood still affects mothers’ and fathers’ careers differently. Drawing on in-depth interviews with Norwegian mothers who are relinquishing high-commitment careers of law and consultancy, this paper questions the adequacy of established explanations emphasizing constraints vs. individual preferences. Our sample of female professionals living in a well-developed welfare state is particularly apt to explore the processes and mechanisms upholding the statistically gendered pattern of women reducing their work commitment after childbirth. These doubly privileged mothers might be considered to have the best odds for combining career and work commitment with motherhood. Thus, we argue that the approach emphasizing practical constraints does not sufficiently account for the withdrawal from high-commitment careers among these female professionals. Nevertheless, we are not content with the claim of Preference Theory that this shift in commitment is merely a matter of ‘not-so-dedicated’ women discovering their ‘genuine’ preferences. Rather, in order to understand why and how this shift occurs, we explore the culturally constructed rationalities and schemas of both work and family devotions. We specifically examine the circumstances, mechanisms and steps in a seemingly individual process of making the shift in commitment from a promising career to a family-friendly job. Moreover, the analysis demonstrates how generous parental leave arrangements designed to enhance gender equality and work-family balance by simply reducing practical constraints may have limited–or even counterproductive–impact within high-commitment occupations where the ‘irreplaceability’ of workers is taken for granted. Our findings indicate that unless the culturally (re)produced discourses, demands and expectations of both work and family are exposed and challenged, even intentionally gender neutral work-family policies will continue to facilitate mothers’ career withdrawals, expressed as modified individual preferences.


Motherhood vs career logic rules

We’re all equal now, right? More women than ever get an education, there are new ideals for what it means to be a father and family-friendly solutions have changed the framework for how mothers’ and fathers’ adapt to work and family life. Yet my dissertation ‘Mothers and fathers meet the rules of career logic’ shows these social changes have not been enough to achieve gender equality in working life or in family life.

Mar 07, 2011 | Text: Sigtona Halrynjo

The dissertation is based on a survey with 3,924 male and female respondents from three Norwegian top professions, interviews with 42 highly educated women and men, an EU-study including interviews with 102 men and finally a case study from a major Norwegian company. The analyses show that even though highly educated women work more and share family work more evenly with their partner compared to other women, there is still some way to go before gender equality both at work and in the division of labour at home is achieved. Investment in elite education and equally strong preferences for career is not enough to change the skewed work-life balance between the sexes – when parenthood is involved.

The analyses show no differences in career realisation between men and women without children, and nearly nine in ten highly educated women agree that the best situation for a family with small children implies that themother and father both work the same amount of paid work and share child care and household chores equally. However, the actual traditional gender division of child care negatively affects mother’s career. Even among the best educated, fathers can either share child care responsibility equally or it will be taken care of by his partner. Mothers, on the other hand, can either share with her partner or do the job herself. The option of leaving the main responsibility to her partner is still very, very rare for a woman. Thus,mothers and fathers do not have equal conditions for success in ‘the career game’.

Family friendly arrangements are introduced in order to make it easier to combine work and family life. However, the dissertation highlights the imbalance between the formal rules, which focus on the importance of finding a good work-life balance, and the ‘real rules of the game’ which demand that people are able to present themselves as irreplaceable workers in order for them to have a chance of professional development or promotion.

When it becomes too stressful having to be irreplaceable both at work and at home, the solution for mothers is to change from a career lifestyle to an employee lifestyle. Demands will be lower and life quality will to a larger extent be defined by spare time activities. A change like that means the work-life balance rules become more manageable and family-oriented solutions aren’t ‘punished’. But such a change also means giving up career paths and opportunities for self-realisation typically associated with high education jobs.

Family-friendly measures can be important to improve employees’ work-life balance. But if these measures are being used systematically more by women than men there’s also the danger that they will contribute to the traditional work-life division between the sexes. So despite having the same starting point, men and women end up with systematically different work-life solutions: fathers will to a larger extent follow the career logic of continuously investing in their job, and they will be awarded with opportunities to develop and to further their careers. Mothers will to a greater extent take on the main responsibility at home and hope they can put their career on hold, and still ‘make it’ later on. Fathers’ careers are given priority and mothers’ careersseem to have to yield.

Faced with the individual competition for working life privileges – which extend to more than job and income safety, like the chance to perform exciting tasks, the chance for advancement and higher salaries – a built-in award system for workers without care responsibilities creates a gender-related paradox in which family-friendly measures could end up working against gender equality and against careers.

The dissertation therefore challenges the traditional policy of adapting working life to family life, and demonstrates how the career logic of workers making themselves irreplaceable will per definition award not being encumbered with care responsibility. Is it possible to achieve gender equality by introducing more voluntary rights for employees with family responsibilities? As long as prevailing family policies allow for a skewed use of carers’ rights, the result could be an imbalance in the opportunities to play the ‘career game’. Some argue for a wider definition of what constitutes relevant family policy to include working life conditions. The real challenge, however, is to identify to which extent and in what ways it is possible to regulate working life conditions where career logic rules apply.

Traditionally, paid parental leave and reduced working hours are perceived as implicit benefits which workers collectively can negotiate with their employer. Yet within the career logic, having time to work is an important investment and advantage which helps in the competition for the exciting opportunities among colleagues. Within the ‘career game’ even paid leave or other family-friendly arrangements can then become a problem which makes it more difficult for mothers to succeed.

It will be interesting for future research to study the possibilities and limitations for regulating career logic rules. We need to know more about how the emergence of an ever increasingly evaluation and performance-based working life influences career logic rules in different professions and work organisations.

In principle you could imagine a situation where all workers who have dependent children and/or older relatives actually do take their share of the care responsibility. In that case the career drawback of being ‘burdened’ with care responsibility would be considerably smaller.

If gender equality at home and at work is the goal – and both women and men with high education in these studies say it is – the shape and use of measures to improve the work-life balance must not be measured only in terms of reduced perceived stress in the short term. It must also be analysed and understood in light of the (gendered) conditions of care responsibility, dependent on who has and who is a partner taking the major responsibility at home – and in light of career logic rules, where the aim is to portray yourself as ‘irreplaceable’.

About CoffeeWithKath

Passionate about Technology in Education and how it can make a difference in the lives of students with Dyslexia. Founder of @ForDyslexia. Mom of twins. Juggling entrepreneurship and kids.

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