Study: Men and Women Both Stressed About Work-Life Balance

A new study shows shifting attitudes on how much parents should work.

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In her controversial new book, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg advises women that a key part of "leaning in" is finding an equal partner in housework and childcare. That may be sound advice, but new research suggests that not only are those couples rare, but that many men and women alike don't want a fully equal partnership. However, both sexes are virtually equally stressed about achieving work-life balance.

Fathers spend far more time at their jobs and less time on housework and childcare than mothers, according to a new Pew Research Center study, which dissects results of the U.S. government's American Time Use Survey. The study also found that mothers spend around 32 hours per week on childcare and housework, compared to fathers' 17 hours. Meanwhile, mothers average 21 hours per week on paid work, compared to 37 hours for fathers.

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Still, despite this gap in activities, moms and dads do share at least one commonality, says one researcher.

"Stress and work life balance issues are just as challenging for fathers as they are for mothers," says Kim Parker, associate director with Pew's Social and Demographic Trends Project. "We found that an equal share [of fathers] said they were having a hard time balancing work and family life as moms did."

The survey shows that 50 percent of working dads and 56 percent of working moms report that it is "very" or "somewhat" difficult to balance family and work responsibilities.

But a majority of adults agree that "ideal" work-life balance differs by sex. Nearly half of respondents say it's best for the mother of young children to work part-time. Only 12 percent say it's ideal for a mom to work full-time. Meanwhile, 20 percent of respondents say it's ideal for a dad of young children to work part-time, but an overwhelming majority—70 percent—say fathers should work full-time.

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Of course, not every parent has a partner. But even mothers flying solo would prefer not to work full-time. Just under half of unmarried mothers—49 percent—say their ideal situation is to work full-time. Still, that's a dramatic shift from 2007, when 26 percent said the same. Meanwhile, attitudes among married moms about full-time work have barely shifted, remaining around 23 percent in both 2007 and the latest poll.

While public attitudes about women and work may be cringe-worthy to proponents of gender equality, Pew's report does show evidence of change. In 1965, mothers averaged only eight hours of paid work per week, less than half of today's 21 hours. Meanwhile, dads in 1965 averaged 2.5 hours of childcare a week, compared to today's seven hours.

Attitudes are also changing, though it may not be permanent. In 1997, 30 percent of mothers with children under 18 said their ideal situation would be to work full-time. As of 2007, that share had fallen to 20 percent, but it grew sharply over the course of the economic downturn, to 32 percent in 2012. In addition, 57 percent of fathers agree that it's "ideal" for mothers of young children to work full- or part-time—a shift from 2009, when only 43 percent said the same.

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However, these shifts may be more a result of tough economic times than changes in beliefs about gender dynamics.

"The recession might come into play there, with families feeling like they need the dual income," says Parker.

If these shifts are indeed due to economics rather than philosophy, it may be that as the recovery strengthens, women will have to lean in even harder.

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