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University of Basel

Between old norms and new aspirations

Text: Samanta Siegfried

These days, balancing family and work is an issue for mothers and fathers alike. The Center for Gender Studies is examining why we find it so difficult to break out of traditional roles.

According to a 2019 UNICEF study, Switzerland is the lowest-ranking country in Europe when it comes to balancing family and work commitments. Although the concept of the family is now in flux, over 80% of the Swiss population lives in nuclear families. Dr. Diana Baumgarten, a family sociologist and gender researcher in the Center for Gender Studies at the University of Basel, is investigating why this is the case and how social understanding of the role of the family is currently changing. “These days, both genders face similar struggles to balance work and family,” says Baumgarten. Yet, women and men approach the problem from opposite angles: “While women struggle to balance family commitments with their careers, men struggle to balance work commitments with their families.”

She describes the current ideal of motherhood as the “mother who works part-time and assumes primary responsibility for the child.” Conversely, the ideal of fatherhood is the “emotionally involved, present breadwinner.” There are various reasons for this tension. “Gender research suggests that neither structural nor individual conditions are the cause of this,” says Baumgarten. “Rather, these two approaches must be included in research and observed to see how they interact.”

Male career-centeredness

Research shows that historical developments have a great deal of influence. With the rise of the bourgeoisie in societies shaped by Western norms, a specific ideal evolved that determines perceptions of the family to this day: the middle-class, patriarchal nuclear family. This is characterized by the separation of professional and family life, and the gender-specific division of work: employment is assigned to the masculine sphere, family to the feminine. “Traditional gender and family norms may be treated more flexibly today, but they remain powerful,” Baumgarten concludes.

One example is the notion that men achieve success outside the home, women within the family. “Full-time work and a career remain key to a man’s identity,” says Baumgarten. If they are lost, he may become psychologically unsettled, and find himself questioning how to give meaning to his life and earn espect. “These ideas are deeply entrenched in our identity,” Baumgarten explains. “We can’t simply decide to take them away.”

It is not just society that demands fathers take economic responsibility for the family; as a general rule, women expect this of their partners and men expect it of themselves. This was demonstrated by a survey of 30-year-old men and women conducted as part of a research project at the Center for Gender Studies. Most of the women surveyed stated that they wished to continue working after starting a family – even if only on a part-time basis. Yet, hardly any of the women gave financial necessity as a reason for continuing to work. This means that the majority of the women would rely on their partners for economic security.

his expectation is also refl ected in men’s desire for chil-dren: for men, starting a family is much more strongly linked with socioeconomic status and the ability to secure the family’s income. However, it has been evident for some time that we are moving away from the middle-class family ideal. “Many modern men don’t want to be the type of father who only sees his children in the evenings and at the week-end,” states Baumgarten.

World of work less attractive for women

This juxtaposition of old requirements and new aspirations for fatherhood means that fathers are now living a contradiction. For example, nine out of ten fathers claim that they would like to reduce their workload; however, only one in ten fathers actually reduces his workload to have more time for his family.

In turn, modern women increasingly define themselves based on their career. More and more women have a fixed professional identity before giving birth. However, Baumgarten explains that “the ideal of a good mother who takes full responsibility for the family remains very dominant.” Many women would still define themselves in terms of motherhood. “Women often see the family as their own space in which they are their own boss – unlike the workplace.” The family is a kind of private haven; in contrast, the sphere of work is shaped by competition and controlled by others. If not already apparent, this is when our society’s structural problems come to the fore. As Baumgarten says: “Many women see badly paid service jobs as their only alternative.”

In her work, Baumgarten indicates how feasible it is for fathers to work part-time and for mothers to continuously engage in gainful employment in individual professional sectors. She concludes that: “While many fathers – fearing damage to their careers – never actually avail of the measures designed to help them reconcile family and work, women usually resign themselves to scaling back their professional ambitions and learn to be satisfi ed with fewer opportunities for career development.” Changing this would require childcare options and a diff erent working time policy that does not demand constant availability.

Lack of public debate

Baumgarten believes that public debate on this topic is urgently required. “Family matters are regarded as extremely private in Switzerland.” The interviews with 30-year-old men and women also showed that balancing work and family is seen as the individual’s responsibility. As a consequence, the notion that the state and society are responsible for putting equality into practice barely registers in German-speaking Switzerland. “Societal visions for and changes to working and living conditions are scarcely considered or even encouraged,” says Baumgarten. This means there is a lack of role models and enforcing true equality is largely left to individuals.

And yet Baumgarten says there would be nothing but advantages to enabling a work/life balance: “Children benefit from having two equally available parents, parents benefit from knowing their way around both areas of life and being able to exchange ideas – and they don’t lose sight of their long-term career goals.”


More articles in the current issue of UNI NOVA.

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