Why Women Feel More Guilt About Taking Work Home

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The conclusion of a new study by sociologists from the University of Toronto won’t come as a surprise to working women: they feel more guilt than men about taking work-related phone calls or emails at home. And lest you assume it’s all about work-family balance, consider that women who were single and childless also felt more guilt.

Researchers looked at data from the 2005 U.S. Work, Stress and Health Survey, which asked 1,042 working adults to describe the frequency with which “boundary-spanning” responsibilities — such as calls, emails and texts from bosses, coworkers or clients— intruded into their home lives. Respondents also reported their levels of distress and guilt over the intrusions.

The more work-related calls and emails women took after hours, the researchers found, the more guilt and distress they felt; no such increase was reported by men. Women’s guilt persisted even when their work didn’t interfere with family life.

“Initially, we thought women were more distressed by frequent work contact because it interfered with their family responsibilities more so than men,” study author Paul Glavin, a doctoral student at the University of Toronto, said in a statement. “However, this wasn’t the case. We found that women are able to juggle their work and family lives just as well as men, but they feel more guilty as a result of being contacted. This guilt seems to be at the heart of their distress.”

The survey sample tended to skew older (average age 47) and female (59%), and participants were more likely to be married and to have higher education and income levels than the general population. But given the blurring of boundaries between work and home life in all segments of the population, the study raises important issues, especially for working women. Indeed, within the surveyed group, women consistently reported more guilt despite their type of job, income level or their particular “division of labor” and responsibilities at home.

The first step is to try to understand why women feel more work-associated guilt. Wrote the researchers:

Despite the empirical reality that family structures and parenting practices change with broader social and economic contexts (e.g., today dual-earner families outnumber the breadwinner/homemaker form), the gender contingencies that we find in the associations between work contact and guilt and distress suggests that salient gender differences remain with regard to work-family role expectations.

In other words, even though more men are taking part in raising the kids and doing housework, and more women are earning incomes outside the home, it’s possible that women still perceive the work-life balance differently because of enduring gender roles.

“These forces may lead some women to question or negatively evaluate their family role performance when they’re trying to navigate work issues at home,” co-author Scott Schieman, a professor at the University of Toronto, told Reuters.

The study [PDF] was published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.