Let's Get Real About Work-Life Balance for Women

by Nathalie O'Neill

A woman's work is never done. We talk a lot about gender equality in the workplace. We know that work-life balance is a career priority for both men and women. But it seems like the one place where gender roles still strongly prevail is in the home. Women try to have it all and just end up having too much, so it's time to talk about achieving true balance so we can stop being so exhausted.

While women are taking on more paid employment than ever before, there's no matching decline in how much they pitch in at home. A new study from the European Social Survey shows that in heterosexual couples where both partners work full-time, on average, women still take on two-thirds of the workload at home. If you take into account both paid and unpaid labor, women are actually working more than ever before.

I asked some real-life working women with live-in boyfriends to weigh in on how their division of household work affected their work-life balance. I was reassured to find some pretty modern couples out there, who managed to find a balanced division of household work that fit each partner's schedule and needs.

"Basically we totally split everything 50/50, and crazily enough we're pregnant and negotiating splitting work and child care now too," says Jessica, 28. Leila, 27, also about to start a family, is home on preventative leave while her boyfriend stays in school. "Though I've felt that my contribution is therefore to take care of affairs at home, Bryn still insists on doing a lot when he's home," she explains. "He takes care of the dishes, waters the garden, does more physical/repair stuff, and sometimes makes meals for us both. In essence we both tend to the things we each see needs to be done and it balances out very well. I'm really grateful that he was not raised in a home with traditional gender roles, as he's really internalized a shared workload despite my volunteering to manage our home."

"Each according to his needs" seems to be a theme for a number of couples. At least it works for Beth, 25. "Because I like things cleaner and am generally more thorough, I'll do more of it," she explains. "But for the regularly scheduled stuff like mopping floors, serious bathroom cleaning, laundry, weekly food shopping, and so forth, we split that evenly. I think we both have work-life balance, and when I was unemployed for a month I didn't mind doing almost everything around the apartment because he paid for my share of bills."

Power couple Laura and Dawit, both in their forties, work full-time, yet Dawit takes on most of the work at home. "[He] is the chief cleaner," explains Laura. "I follow his lead. He is the eldest of eight kids, and the only boy, and was brought up working...a the home." So is his help an important factor in Laura's professional success and work-life balance? "YES, a huge YES," she answers. "[Dawit] keeps both of us balanced in terms of domestics work. He is also the cook. I do very little in terms of domestic work, in all honesty!"

It seems like picking the right partner can play a huge factor for career-minded women. I can't help but think of Sheryl Sandberg's words, "The most important career choice you'll make is who you marry." A cleanliness-minded man who was raised to share the workload may be the key to getting women to relax after a long day at work. Since women are reluctant to ask for help or say no to extra work, men need to step up and take on their share of the workload at home so ladies can finally catch a break. A men's movement encouraging boyfriends and husbands to lean into their home life might just be the answer. After all, achieving equality within our relationships will bring us one step closer to work-life balance–and just plain sanity.

Image: Lucélia Ribeiro on Flickr