THE BLOG
01/22/2013 12:35 pm ET | Updated Mar 24, 2013

Is Housework a Career Killer?

A new study from the University of California, Berkeley indicates that women who run their households have fewer career ambitions and less interest in promotions and raises at work.

The study's co-authors, UC Berkeley psychologist Serena Chen and Emory University assistant professor of business Melissa Williams, conducted a series of experiments that demonstrated ambition wasn't affected when women shared household responsibilities with their spouses, only when they controlled them. While both female and male survey participants agreed having control of household decisions is desirable and advantageous, only women indicated that actually having that control impacted their career ambitions.

"It appears that being in charge of household decisions may bring a semblance of power to women's traditional role, to the point where women may have less desire to push against the obstacles to achieving additional power outside the home," said Chen in a press release issued by the university.

Do women just want control, regardless of whether it's at the kitchen table or the conference table? It's not that simple. The key phrase in Chen's quote may be "to push against the obstacles."

I set out to research if housework was a career-killer for my forthcoming book The Truth About Working Women. After all, we know from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics annual American Time Use Survey that women, on average, spend more time on household tasks than men. And we know that women are making slow, if any, progress breaking the glass ceiling to access the top positions at work. Despite the fact women represent almost half of today's workforce, among the Fortune 500 they hold just 16.6 percent of board seats and just 14.3 percent of Executive Officer positions, according to the Catalyst 2012 F500 Census.

What I already knew, and what's been borne out in my conversations with scores of working women, is that they are resourceful. They manage to raise kids, run homes, volunteer, and go to work -- all at the same time. They take on the added responsibility of caring for aging family members when their schedules are already overbooked. They figure out how to survive in corporate settings where the odds are stacked against us. They know how to tap into a deep well of optimism and fortitude in order to get things done. Making the dinner and managing the household finances aren't going to stand in the way of their goals.

But when faced with the choice of doing an average job at many things or excelling at a few, women will choose their priorities based on what has the highest return on investment. And for many women it's difficult to argue that creating a positive environment for their families yields a greater return than creating profit for a shareholder, especially when you consider women still face many barriers to success and satisfaction at work.

Before we draw the conclusion that women don't care about career, we need to examine the obstacles Chen referenced. There are still many subtle inequities and hidden barriers in the workplace that affect women and challenge their opportunities for advancement. Too few companies have adopted family-friendly policies such as mentoring programs, flexible schedules, better childcare and telecommuting programs that make work/life manageable. And there is the issue of the wage gap, which shows no signs of shrinking.

It's not that women lack ambition. A study from the Center for Work-Life Policy showed that at the start of their careers, 47 percent of young women claim to be "very ambitious." It's that women desire meaning, value and recognition from the work they do. Some women find those attributes at the office. Others find them at home.

But it behooves all of us to ensure more women find it outside, as well as inside, the home. According to the management consulting firm McKinsey, women's participation in the workforce is key to the U.S. sustaining its historic Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate of three percent. And there's a growing body of evidence that women at the top of an organization help improve its bottom line. Families benefit from women working too. After all their paychecks help pay mortgages, grocery bills, childcare, school fees and medical bills.

With more than half of American women who work serving as breadwinners and contributing at least some part of the necessary income to maintain their households, wouldn't women and men working together, both inside and outside the home, be the most desirable and advantageous scenario for all?