Women who find that they are the key decision makers at home automatically lose interest in their professional careers without them becoming aware of the shift in their priorities, a new study reveals.
"Women don't know that they are backing off from workplace power because of how they are thinking about their role at home," Melissa Williams from Emory University said.
"As a result, women may make decisions such as not going after a high-status promotion at work, or not seeking to work full time, without realizing why," she said.
Her new study is one of several at the SPSP meeting that will explore a continued gender gap in workplace power - from how women versus men view their roles in the home to how gender stereotypes form at a young age to how these attitudes affect women's likelihood of pursuing careers in science and math.
"Even as we see great gains made by women in the workforce, we continue to also see disproportionately larger numbers of women leaving successful careers, or diverting their career paths to ones with fewer hours and greater flexibility, but that also hold less status," Bernadette Park from the University of Colorado Boulder said.
We often speak about women as being decision-making experts or power holders in the home setting, but while people intend these references to be complimentary to women, Williams says "such language may have a negative effect on the decisions they make about their lives outside the home, without them being aware of it."
To test this effect, Williams and colleagues first surveyed people to gauge their views of power in household decisions-making. Both men and women perceived power over household decisions as being desirable and making a person feel powerful.
They then asked men and women aged 18 to 30 years old to imagine that they were married and had a child in one of three conditions: either they make many of the decisions; they make decisions together with their spouse; or they perform most of the household tasks with no mention of household decision-making power.
Women were less interested in pursuing work goals when they had household power, compared to sharing equal power with a spouse. Men's interest in work goals, however, was unaffected by their household power.
Also, women's interest in workplace power did not change simply by imagining that they were performing household tasks.
"It is only when such tasks are described as involving power that they negatively affect women's motivation to pursue workplace power," Williams said.
"We think this is because referring to women's household role as one involving power puts a positive spin on women's traditional role on the home, and makes it seem more appealing".
"It is one thing for a woman to choose to stay at home if she wishes her primary role be that of wife and mother".
"But when the language we use to talk about household chores makes such a role unconsciously more appealing to women, without the same effect on men, this is not what most people think of as making a free choice," she said.
Women have some even more basic obstacles to overcome when working at both home and in the workplace.
According to new study, women experience conflict in managing their identities as a parent and a worker at the same time, much more so than men.
"The basic premise of this research is that cultural stereotypes of the 'ideal mom' conflict with stereotypes of the 'ideal worker' and in particular the 'ideal professional'," Park said.
"In contrast, for men, successfully fulfilling the role of professional in part also fulfils obligations associated with the 'ideal dad'".
"For women, the identities of mom and professional are experienced in opposition or conflict with one another in a way that dad and professional are not for men," Park said.
Park and colleagues measured how easily women and men associate themselves with career versus family goals through a series of "implicit" association tests that measure how quickly people categorize words within the two goal domains.
They found that women often had to "switch hats" in thinking about parenting versus work, while men primarily associated themselves with just work.
They also found that women performed more poorly on cognitive tasks after experiencing shifts in how they associate with these two identities, but not before.
Men showed no such depletion of cognitive capacities. The researchers further found that when women received negative feedback related to a career-related task, they would more strongly "activate" their identity as a parent, "as if easing the sting of the failure," Park said.
The data together suggest that "one of the greatest challenges faced by women in trying to 'have it all' is that they experience a psychological conflict in their most basic identities not true of men," Park said.
"Mentally, they have to shift back and forth between self-conceptions of self-as-mom versus self-as-professional and these two selves do not reside easily next to each other," Park added.
The findings of the study have been presented at the Society of Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) annual meeting in New Orleans.