Conflict Between Work and Family Assignment | Essay Help Services

L04 Overview

In Lesson 2 you heard the term separate spheres. To refresh your memory, the term refers to the different realms in which men and women perform their life activities. In this ideology, men work outside the home in the world of work (or more correctly, employment) and women work inside the home taking care of the family. This is also known as the sexual division of labor. When you think of this arrangement, you might recall old television programs like Ozzie and Harriet or even The Brady Bunch where the families were structured such that the mother stayed at home with the children and the father was the “breadwinner.” Today, reality could not be farther from this picture. Fewer than 10 percent of families reflect this division of labor. Most families with children (and even children under six years old) do not have a full-time homemaker.

Learning Objectives

After successfully completing this lesson and the reading assignments, you will be able to accomplish the following objectives:

  • Outline how families influence occupational steering.
  • Describe the different work and family challenges at different stages of the life cycle.
  • Define the “second shift” and explain how it reflects and reinforces gender inequality.
  • Describe and analyze the variety of work and family policies available to the U.S. workforce.
  • Explain how work influences family and family influences work.

Key Terms and Concepts

Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) second shift
occupation steering sexual division of labor
role conflict/overload work/life policies


  • Chapter 5 in Hodson and Sullivan
  • Lesson 04 Content

L04 Work and Families

So, what happened to change the pattern? First, we need to recognize that the “traditional” work and family pattern depicted above is actually not so traditional. It’s a historical aberration with its roots in Victorian England. Gender ideology in Victorian England promoted the idea that women were the weaker sex and that they needed to be “protected” in the home, the arena for which they were naturally suited. Women were seen as nurturing, emotional, and weak, lacking the constitution for work outside the home. In contrast, men were seen as logical, competitive, and strong and thus perfectly suited to the competitive world of “work” and commerce. The result of this ideology was that women (middle-class and above) were not employed outside the home and what they did in the home was not seen as work. Indeed, for some upper-class women, this was true: their servants took care of the household labor. For others, their hard work in the home was rendered invisible and thus devalued. At the same time, men’s work (employment) came to be seen as the only legitimate work.

Poor women have always worked outside the home out of necessity. Yet, the ideology of separate spheres was a powerful one that heaped social criticism on men who were not able to “keep” a wife: an employed wife was a source of shame. This ideology had a particularly strong hold in U.S. culture after World War II. So strong was the ideology, that we often look to the past, mourning the loss of a golden age represented by the separate spheres arrangement. Politicians trace many of society’s ills to the “breakdown of the family.” What they mean in part is that women have gained economic independence as their employment has become the norm. In reality, women have always worked and significant numbers have been employed outside the home. For poor women and women of color, employment, rather than separate spheres, has been the norm.

Unfortunately, societal attitudes often take time to catch up with reality, creating what we call a “cultural lag.” If you look carefully, you can see that much of society is still arranged around the idea that men will have homemaking wives. What evidence can you find? Consider the following:

  • The length of the U.S. workweek is increasing.
  • Many of the “services” one requires are only available during regular working hours (for example, few dentists or banks have evening hours).
  • School districts have only recently begun to offer full-day kindergarten.
  • The school day for children typically ends by 3 p.m.
  • Children do not attend school in the summer months.
  • Most workers do not have access to paid parental leave.

The assumptions embedded in these social observations are that:

  • workers (men, specifically) are able to extend their work time because there is someone else to care for the house and children;
  • consumers of services are available during the day (i.e., they are homemaking women);
  • children will have mothers at home to care for them after school and in the summer months; and
  • “parents” (men, specifically) do not need time off for parental leave because there is a full-time homemaker.

One broad cultural result is that we have an idea in our heads about the “ideal worker” who comes to work unencumbered by outside needs. This worker can devote all his/her time and effort to the job because all outside needs are taken care of by a homemaking spouse. To the extent that this worker exists, it has been men who fit this mold. Fewer and fewer men fit the profile of the “ideal worker.”

The notion of the ideal worker has implications for the workplace and for the family. If employers and co-workers assume that this type exists, expectations and policies will reflect that. Employers will not think twice when placing onerous travel demands on a worker. After all, he has a homemaking spouse to take care of the home while he is away! Relocation causes significant challenges for dual career couples. Child care support may not be seen as a priority. In fact, this cultural lag poses many problems for workers and employers, because work and family are not separate spheres. What happens in one affects the other. Sick children, for example, have an effect on a parent’s work. Someone must stay at home to care for the child. Likewise, stressful work situations can “spill over” into the family and cause problems in that realm as well. Rather than looking at the two arenas as separate spheres, researchers have found that the two realms need to be studied simultaneously if we want to fully understand each sociologically.

L04 The Second Shift

One of these areas of research concerns what is called the second shift. The second shift is the household work that employed women perform. After working a full day, most women must attend to laundry, cleaning, cooking, child care, and the like. When both partners are employed, women still do a disproportionate share of the domestic labor. In the book, The Second Shift, Arlie Hochschild writes that even couples who characterize themselves as highly egalitarian have a highly skewed division of household labor. Because she observed families in addition to interviewing them, she was able to detect disparities between what families told her and what they actually did. The sharing of household labor was found to be a family myth couples told themselves.

Employed wives do nearly a full work week’s worth of household labor each week, while men spend around 11 hours per week, whether their wives are employed or not. You may occasionally see it reported that men are doing a greater share of household work than in the past. To some extent that is true. Small increases have been seen in the time men spend with their children; however, men’s share is increasing mostly because women are doing less household labor than in the past. They are purchasing services such as pre-cooked meals and cleaning services, and reducing their standards for domestic work (i.e., dusting only once a week rather than every day). If we count paid and unpaid labor as work, then women’s average work week surpasses that of men. In fact, an employed wife works the equivalent of an extra month of full-time days each year. The second shift has been and continues to be a source of conflict and tension in many families.

What sets this dynamic in motion? Are men simply lazy? While society encourages women to maintain their domestic duties despite employment, it also discourages men from taking a more active role in household work. Men who want time off to care for children or who want to leave on time to see a child’s school play are penalized at work. They are seen as uncommitted, just like women. Sometimes, the social sanctions are even worse for men because it is still a societal expectation that women will stay home with a sick child or take them to the doctor. Men are expected not to do this. Both women and men do face repercussions on the job when they do these things (i.e., they fail to live up to the “ideal worker” norm).

L04 The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

We would be remiss if we did not note that there have been some positive changes in work and family challenges in the past 30 years. Both the U.S. government and many employers have taken steps toward helping workers reconcile the demands of work and family. In 1993, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was signed into law. The FMLA requires employers of 50 or more people to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year for the serious health condition of an employee or member of the employee’s immediate family or for the birth of adoption of a child. The FMLA covers:

  • all public employers (i.e., federal, state, and municipal jobs);
  • private employers with 50 or more employees on the payroll during each of 20 or more calendar work weeks in either the current or preceding calendar year;
  • employees who have been employed for at least 12 months and who have worked at least 1,250 hours (approximately 24 hours per week) in the 12 months preceding commencement of the FMLA leave; and
  • employees who work at facilities with 50 or more employees or who work for employers with 50 or more employees working within 75 miles of the work site.

In January 2008 the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) amended the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993. In addition to the coverage described above it also will cover a spouse, son, daughter, parent, or next of kin” to take up to 26 work weeks of leave to care for a member of the Armed Forces, including a member of the National Guard or Reserves, who is undergoing medical treatment, recuperation, or therapy, is otherwise in outpatient status, or is otherwise on the temporary disability retired list, for a serious injury or illness (U.S. Department of Labor, 2008). The NDAA also permits an employee to take FMLA leave for “any qualifying exigency (as the Secretary [of Labor] shall, by regulation, determine) arising out of the fact that the spouse, or a son, daughter, or parent of the employee is on active duty (or has been notified of an impending call or order to active duty) in the Armed Forces in support of a contingency operation (U.S. Department of Labor, 2008). As of the year end of 2008 the definition of “any qualifying exigency” has yet to be defined so the true impact on employers and how the policy will be administered has not been determined.

The Department of Labor has identified nine broad categories of qualifying exigencies which include: short notice deployment; military events and related activities (to member’s deployment); childcare and related activities; care of the military member’s parent; financial and legal arrangements; counseling; rest and recuperation; post-deployment activities; any other event that the employee and employer agree is qualifying exigency (U.S. Department of Labor, 2013).

While this FMLA represents a step in the right direction, there have been several criticisms. First, up to half of the private-sector workforce is located in organizations that fall below the 50 employee threshold. Many organizations covered under FMLA were likely to have had a leave policy prior to implementation of the law. Second, one must work approximately 24 hours per week for 52 weeks to meet the 1,250 hour requirement. Many part-time and temporary workers are excluded from coverage. Women and people of color are overrepresented in this kind of work. Third, the definition of “immediate family” may exclude non-traditional families: gay/lesbian families; multi-generational families; families where partners are cohabiting rather than married. However, a Final Rule on February 25, 2015 revising the regulatory definition of spouse under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) was made so that eligible employees in legal same-sex marriages will be able to take FMLA leave to care for their spouse or family member, regardless of where they live. This will ensure that the FMLA will give spouses in same-sex marriages the same ability as all spouses to fully exercise their FMLA rights. Finally, FMLA is unpaid leave. The single greatest reason cited by individuals who qualify for leave but do not take it is that they cannot afford time off without pay. According to the Department of Labor, of the people who needed but did not take a leave, nearly 90 percent said they would have taken a leave if some pay were received. However, FMLA does provide a measure of job protection for those who use the leave either in small bits or all at once, because the employer must provide an equivalent job (but not necessarily the exact same job) if one is available upon the employee’s return.

If many families do not use FMLA because it is unpaid, are there other reasons this policy is underutilized? The following are reasons cited by the Department of Labor as contributing to the underutilization of FMLA:

  • Many employers and employees are not aware of the Act or how it works. In a survey conducted by the U.S. government in 2000, over one-third of respondents had never heard of FMLA. More than 10 percent of organizations covered by the Act did not know that they were covered.
  • Nearly one-third of those who needed a leave did not take one because they feared they might lose their job or risk future job advancement.
  • A small proportion did not take the leave because their employer denied the request.
  • Many individuals misunderstand various aspects of the Act including the fact that all 12 weeks need not be taken at once. Leave can be, and often is, intermittent.
  • Surprisingly, nearly half of those who didn’t take leave they needed said that work was too important to take time off.

Reference: U.S. Department of Labor, 2008. H.R. 4986, the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2008 (NDAA), Pub. L. 110-181.
U.S. Department of Labor, 2013. Fact Sheet #28M(c): Qualifying Exigency Leave under the Family Medical Leave Act.  Accessed on July 20, 2016 (Links to an external site.)

WHD Fact Sheet_28M(c).pdf

L04 Use of FLMA

How are employees actually using the leave? Has FMLA become a burden to employers? The most common reason employees give for taking leave is not to care for their family, but for their own health (37.8 percent). If we add up those who took leave to care for a newborn or adopted child, those who took leave for an ill child or parent, and those who took leave for maternity reasons, we account for nearly half of leave-takers. Although the single most common reason for leave was for one’s own health, when combined family-related reasons account for the majority of leave used.

Opponents of the FMLA warned that employees would abuse the act either with false claims or failure to return to work (i.e., they would change companies or quit working altogether). To date, very little abuse has been documented. Most leaves require documentation from a physician, and nearly all leave-takers return to their employers after the leave (approximately 98 percent). In addition, the Act has not left employers high and dry since the average length of leave is only 10 days. Fewer than 10 percent of those who take leave exceed 60 days, and most leaves are fewer than five days in duration.

How does the United States fare when we look at family-leave policy in the global context? Think of a country you believe has a policy that is worse then the FMLA in the United States. Is it China? Afghanistan? New Zealand? Venezuela? Well, unless you said Papua New Guinea or Lesotho, you would be wrong. The International Labor Organization provides comparative data on maternity leave around the world. Unlike most other nations, the United States provides a gender-neutral policy. However, U.S. leave falls short of most others because it is entirely unpaid. Since the late 1990s, legislation has been proposed to use underutilized funds from the unemployment compensation system to pay for FMLA leave. However, at this time legislation has not been passed.

L04 Conflict Between Work and Family

Despite the surge in attention to work and family policies, many employees report continued conflict between work and family. Chief among their complaints are poorly conceived and executed work and family programs. Indeed, researchers have identified several barriers to implementing successful work and family programs. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Cultural values about work and family: For example, employers may install time-based policies at the same time they maintain high pressure to spend long hours at work.
  • Structural difficulties in implementation: For example, flex-time may not work for all kinds of jobs or it may be impossible for individuals to find someone with whom to share a job.
  • Lack of support from management and immediate supervisors:One can have all the wonderful policies in the world on the books, but if your immediate boss or those higher up do not “buy in” to the policies, employees will not be able to use them as they should.
  • Perception that family issues are women’s issues only: Sometimes this means the issues are not taken seriously; other times this means that men are strongly discouraged from utilizing policies.
  • Maintenance of equity among employees: For example, there is a fear that employees without children will resent employer policies geared toward those with children. There is little actual evidence to support this concern despite the formation of groups like the “childfree network.” Employers can bypass this issue by offering cafeteria-style benefits in which employees are allotted the same, fixed amount of benefit money to use any way they choose among a list of alternatives.
  • Lack of evaluation data:Organizations implement these policies but seldom do the research to find out whether the policies are working or whether they are even used. Useless policies stay on the books, while employee needs may go unmet.

To be successful, work and family programs should be incorporated as part of the strategic human resources planning of the organization. They shouldn’t simple be “added-on” as a fad. Organizational culture must support the work and family programs in place. Finally, organizations must continually reevaluate their programs using real data for assessment.

L04 Discussion

This discussion will examine work/life programs using what you have learned in the lesson as well as through personal experience. The students in this class will have a wide range of working experiences and each of you will be at different points in your career. At some point in time each of you has probably been employed, even if it was a part-time job while in school. If you do not feel you have enough personal experience to answer the question then you can interview friends or family to gain additional information or insight. The purpose of this discussion is to broaden our understanding of the challenges and benefits of work/family programs and to broaden our understanding of how such policies work in practice.

For your initial discussion posting, use your work experience and provide a brief summary of work/life programs offered by your employer or previous employer(s). If no formal work/life programs were in place discuss any informal practices that were used to help with or accommodate work and family. Provide a brief summary of the policy or informal practice. Given what you know about work and family, analyze the organization’s offerings or informal practices. What kinds of employees are/were covered by the programs? What problems or challenges to the implementation or use of the policy exist(ed)? Was the policy or practice used by employees? Was the policy viewed as fair by all employees? For example did single employees without children view the policy as fair?

Pleas write about working as a paraprofessional in an elementary school library

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