Dr. Peggy Drexler
November 20, 2013 3:00 pm

When you look at the surveys about the challenges women face at work – from the glass ceiling waiting above to the ground-level urgencies of work and life, you might ask a question: for all the progress of women in the world of work, why aren’t they happier?

Or is it possible that they actually take the challenges in stride, they’re engaged in their work and happy in their lives – and the world just hasn’t caught up with them?

The laws of research are like the laws of physics: for every study with a conclusion, there is a study with an equal and opposite conclusion.

From the dark side:

As reported on the website World of Psychology, a survey by the American Psychological Association found: women report higher levels of work stress, of the 1,500 surveyed, two thirds felt they had no opportunity to advance and half felt both under-appreciated and under-paid.

Some combination of pressure and life choice is behind another interesting finding. McKinsey reports that 53 percent of entry level jobs are going to women. But women hold only 37 percent of mid-management positions and 26 percent in senior management.

Women are opting out for family. And they’re opting out to run their own businesses. A Kauffman Foundation poll indicates that 44 percent of Millennial women want to start their own business. But the studies would indicate that they are leaving to find a happiness that is eluding them in large organizations.

But then:

There is other evidence that women are just fine with the realities of large corporations, and the fact that work is going to keep its foot on the scale of work life balance.

We tend to look at the state of women and work as a snapshot. In reality, it’s in a state of rapid evolution, powered by the influx of younger women who may be moving the dial in female attitudes.

I talked to one of them who may speak for many others:

She was in her mid-20s in the middle of the 18 to 34 Millennial age span. She has had two promotions since joining her accounting firm in an entry level position.

“I think younger women – including those with families – may be less stressed than other women,” she told me. “It’s not that the pressures are any less. But we came into this with our eyes open. Yeah, big organizations can still find ways to make life harder for women than it needs to be. And, yeah, balancing work and life is hard. But we kind of knew that going in.

“Middle aged women may feel like there was a bait and switch. They thought that once they had a fair chance to compete for good jobs, that the hard part was over, and the rest would fall into place. Of course, that didn’t happen.

“No doubt,” she said, “things have improved for my generation. But just as important, we see the potholes, so we’re not surprised when we hit one. It’s just part of the trip. Personally, I don’t feel I’ve run into anything I couldn’t handle. I think most young women feel pretty good about things.”

Surveys agree.

A 2012 Accenture study called The Next Generation of Working Women found, compared to other generations, Millennials have “the most positive outlook for women in the workplace.”

Sixty five percent of women polled feel women were equal on the job. Sixty six percent see visible female role models in their companies.

The survey found less than half were dissatisfied with their career opportunities, but “most said they are taking a variety of steps to actively manage their careers – including taking different roles or responsibility, receiving more education or training, and working longer hours. Only a third described their career path as “stagnant.”

It appears work life balance isn’t a career deal breaker. Slightly less than a third in the Accenture study said that work-life balance is the most important career factor. And then there is this: An American Psychological Association analysis of National Institute for Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development found mothers with jobs tend to be “healthier and happier than moms who stay home during their children’s infancy and pre-school years.”

There are also some interesting shifts afoot in the opinions of young women versus young men.

A 2012 Pew Research Center study found that, for the first time, young women top young men in the importance of a high paying career. According to the findings, two thirds of women ages 18 to 34 rate career “high on their list of life priorities.” That compares with slightly fewer than 60 percent for young men. In 1997, those findings were reversed.

So, what to believe? Are working women unrewarded and unfulfilled? Or have they never been more confident, more challenged and more optimistic. Pick a study, find your conclusion.

There is no doubt that the work experience for many women is a dreary slog through fields of overwork and under-appreciation. For others, the experience may be joyfully challenging and deeply rewarding; the payoff for all the sacrifices of women who knocked down the doors.

But in the main, it is a far better world for career-focused than any time in history. The dueling studies may simply reflect transition. This is a point in time in a revolution, a stop on a journey. We’re on our way to something better. It just may take a little more time for more women to figure out how to get there.

Featured image via Shutterstock

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