Survey: Having it all means more to men than women

The phrase “having it all” is a loaded one.

Usually, it’s used in a negative sense — that people can’t have it all, or at least can’t have it all at once. It’s also more likely to be used about women than men, most famously in the Atlantic’s story by Anne-Marie Slaughter last year about Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.

But what does it mean?

My next big project (Mosaic) involves collecting time diaries from women who “have it all” — which I defined for research purposes as a) earning over $100,000 a year and b) having at least one child under age 18 — that is, still living at home. It’s a very rough definition of having it all, to be sure, but I assumed that people would quibble with the income part of it more than the family definition.

But it seems I may be wrong, according to a recently released study done by Citi and LinkedIn. They found that only 73% of professional women surveyed included children in their definition of having it all. This was significantly lower than the 86% of men who said children figured in their definition of success. Intriguingly, on the marriage side, just 66% of women thought being in a strong loving marriage was part of having it all, while 79% of men thought that.

Since achieving a trifecta — a happy marriage, children, and a successful career — is probably more difficult than only achieving, say, 1 out of 3, it’s interesting that we seem to think it’s harder for women to have it all (because by whose definition would you measure this but your own?). Men appear to have a more traditional and strict definition, which would seem to make it harder for them. Indeed, slightly more men than women (50 percent vs. 48 percent) told Citi and LinkedIn that finding the right balance between work and family was their major career concern.

So what leads to the headlines? Perhaps it’s that women report more stress at both work and home than men do. A recent Pew Social Trends report likewise found that women feel more tired and exhausted than men do in all major categories: from work to childcare to housework to leisure.

There’s a concept called “confirmation bias,” and what it means is that once you have a thesis in your head, you tend to look for evidence that supports that. So I wonder if this is going on, broadly, in society, too. We think it’s harder for women to have it all, and so the same event (“I learned to make dinner during a PBS show” – as I’ve now seen a few can’t-have-it-all manifestos lament) is viewed differently. For women, it’s evidence that women can’t have it all. For men, what’s wrong with cooking dinner in 22 minutes? 

20 thoughts on “Survey: Having it all means more to men than women

  1. I think the difference is that men has traditionally “had it all” – i.e. career, spouse, and kids.

    Even now, a man can “have it all” if he has a stay-at-home spouse, which will make career and kids arguably easier on a day-to-day basis – although I don’t think we talk enough about the pressure of being a single earner.

    On the other hand, women define “have it all” as having career, spouse, and kids, adding the career part (can’t be just a “job”). Secondly, having a stay-at-home husband is much rarer than having a stay-at-home wife.

    I personally dislike the phrase “having it all” – not because I don’t want to, but because it’s such a gendered phrase. I at least never hear people say to/about men, oh, you can’t have it all, you have to choose. Or, you can’t be a good father if you work or you won’t find a great spouse if you focus on your career.

  2. I’ve thought about this a little more – a more concise way I’d sum up my feelings on “having it all” for men vs. women is that “having it all” for men is the default and “having it all” for women is the exception.

    1. Yes. This is exactly it. It was always possible for men to have careers, marriages and kids. Always. The career part is new (ish) for women—and in many circles still considered “optional”. Add to that the prevalent curent narrative that is saying its impossible to have all three (see: A. Slaughter, etc…), so from an early age, women may feel they have to choose one or another.

      1. I know it’s been said before, but that A. Slaughter article was ridiculous in terms of the “have it all” naming because she *does* “have it all,” and has more than 99.9% of the US population, male and female.
        But ambitious people always want more than they can ever have, because that’s what ambition is. (Like that poor law professor complaining about being poor with an income of *only* 250K. Just because you want more doesn’t mean you don’t already have a lot.) There’s nothing wrong with ambition, but it doesn’t mean anything about “having it all.” Really I’d like to ban that phrase.
        Though if it has to be used, I do like it being forced to have a definition, and a 6 figure income career + kids does seem like a reasonable definition, at least conditional on being for people who want kids.

        1. @NicoleandMaggie – yes, Slaughter was a bizarre read. Forced by the cruel world to settle for a tenured professorship at Princeton — in addition to a family — when she could have had it all!

  3. Maybe there is something strange about the phrase “having it all,” but I do think it’s somewhat useful (and I say this as a prof of women’s studies, among other things).

    According to your definition, Laura, I don’t “have it all.” My salary doesn’t come close to $100,000, even as a tenured professor at an R1 institution. And if I’d married instead of becoming a single mother by choice…well, I could guess that I’d have kids but not the job that I do.

    My own “trifecta”–family, book, tenure–was achieved by maybe two or three women in my cohort but most of the men. I know many women with PhDs who gave up the possibility (or the reality) of great t-t jobs because they followed a partner. Not saying that’s a bad choice, just “having it all” is a tricky thing…

    (For the record, I do think I “have it all” because really I think basing success on $$ is, beyond comfortably class, hugely problematic…why such a high figure?)

      1. That definition fits more in with how I view “having it all”. I don’t either make anywhere near $100,000 myself (in a tenure-track position, and in my first year). Combined, my husband and I do, but I don’t think that really matters. I have a great marriage, 2 amazing kids, and a job that I have worked hard to get and that I really like (and think I’ll love after the craziness of the first year wears off). I think I come pretty close to “having it all”.

    1. @gwinne- I agree that it’s rough, and I’d certainly say that in different fields, incomes represent different things. A first year lawyer at a major firm will get hired at $140k. That doesn’t say a huge amount about her actual accomplishments – just that she did well in law school, did good internships and interviewed well. Whereas someone earning, say, $75,000 solely through published poetry is doing better than 99% of poets. She no doubt has major — perhaps some of the most major — poetry accomplishments to her name. Yet by the income definition, she wouldn’t be in the have-it-all camp.

      So why did I put it there? Marketing, partly. “Six figure women” is a good phrase that searches and clicks well. It is also enough to support a family in a reasonable life style pretty much anywhere (people in NYC may quibble but while there are more obvious trade offs than in the Midwest, it’s still enough to do decently).

  4. As usual, I see both sides of it. Laura needs a useful definition, but an elementary school principal making, say, $80k with full health insurance, penion and summers off in the rural midwest probably “has it all” to a much greater extent than a small-firm attorney in NYC making $105k.

    Seeing life in stages helps me a lot. When I had three kids 2 and under and medical issues, I couldn’t do “career.” Now, I have a “sort of career” that would produce an income of around $100k if I worked full-time, but I don’t, so I don’t have it all now either. I may “have it all” when my kids are in high school, but once my twins turn 18, I will no longer “have it all”. (And the prospect of three kids in college will make me more willing to prioritize work over family, since I’ll expect my kids to run their own lives more.)

    As one of my MBA friends who was a stay-at-home mom puts it, “You can have it all, but not at the same time.”

    1. I really think that depends on definition.

      I have a full-time, well-paying job (though as I say above, not $100k!) in my field of choice. My hours are arguably “flexible” as I don’t need to be on campus every day even with a full teaching load. My annual reviews suggest that I’m doing just fine (though not the “star” of the department).

      I have two children as a single parent. One is in school, the other in daycare (from roughly 8:45 am-5:00 pm).

      I manage to go to yoga once a week most weeks, have occasional phone conversations or dinners with actual friends, and (obviously) read a blog or two.

      Something has to give, and in my case that’s mostly housekeeping/domestic work. I’m also not reading as much as I’d like, though as much as I have to for my job.

      That is, I think I have it all–my definition anyway–right now

    2. @TG – I think you know I disagree that you can’t have it all at the same time. That’s one of the points of the Mosaic project, to show the lives of women who do have highly paid careers and kids. Most are spending quite a bit of time with their kids, on projects and hobbies, volunteering, etc. There are date nights, Sundays at church, cook outs with neighbors. Not everyone, but many people. They go to functions at schools at 11 a.m. and make up the time at some other point.

      1. Certainly some people can have it all at the same time. The MBA friend also had a stillborn baby and lots of time-consuming follow-up for her subsequent pregnancies. She also has a mentally disabled brother that she is primary caregiver for. I admire the fact that some women are able to have careers and children, but this seems to depend in large part on how much people (both men AND women) get hit by life’s bad stuff in terms of extended family health.

    3. The you can have it all but not at the same time is a Goldin quote, but she is talking about our mothers, not us.

      Though that’s really not been my family’s story–lower middle class working moms as far back as we go. Happily, my generation is upper middle class, possibly because professional women are paid closer to their worth now!

  5. When we talk about not being able to have it all, I don’t think people are really talking about the “having” part. (i.e., do you have a family, money, health, etc.) For me, having it all means having meaningful engagement in all the aspects of my life that matter to me. So, for me, working in Washington, DC for the week when my spouse and children lived in Princeton, NJ wouldn’t cut it.

    1. @WG – So it’s really “living it all”? Maybe men are thinking of the “have” part but women are thinking of the “live” part. Interesting….

  6. I disagree with the premise that “having it all” means “earning lots of money.” Up until recently, I was a corporate lawyer at a large firm earning a high salary, but was dissatisfied because I was always stressed and exhausted and my family couldn’t depend on me. Now I’m a government lawyer and we’re strapped for cash, but I feel I now “have it all” because I have a job I like, a happy family, and the ability to care for myself (sleep at night, exercise regularly).

    Back to the article, I think it’s great that people are paying attention to the fact that men don’t “have it all” either. We can feel bitter about the fact that career success has been easier for men with stay-at-home wives, but increasingly men are less willing to give up time with their families and see that as a sacrifice. Let’s not dismiss that. It’s a very good thing that both men and women are trying to achieve a workplace that values balance and people having personal lives.

    Finally, on Anne-Marie Slaughter, her whole point was that even she, with her privileged position, didn’t “have it all” because she was constantly on call and her family suffered as a result. She called for the same type of structural change I mentioned above — a workplace that allows people to be human and acknowledges that they have personal lives and needs.

    1. So she went back to her super-flexible tenured Full-prof job at Princeton…
      In many arenas that would be considered more prestigious than government work and no place to aim higher!
      Except that people with ambition are always trying to aim higher. So they’re always pushing limits and can never have it all.

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