Women May See Tradeoff Between Power at Home and at Work

PAFF_072914_womenpowerworkMFB_newsfeatureWomen earn less money, hold fewer public leadership positions, and have fewer legal rights than men in much of the world. Yet, when it comes to making decisions about the home, women are often portrayed as the ones
calling the shots.

While taking charge of household decisions may seem like a positive role for women, a recent study found that holding power over household decisions may have unanticipated consequences.

Psychological scientists Melissa J. Williams (Emory University) and Serena Chen (University of California, Berkeley) hypothesized that women would experience power as a tradeoff. As women gained a greater sense of power in the household, they would chose not to seek additional power in the workplace.

To test this, they carried out three studies to examine how making decisions about the home would affect women’s ambition in the workplace.

In the first study, women and men were asked to rate a series of household tasks for how positive and in control the tasks made them feel. Some of the tasks involved making decisions for the household, such as deciding what is served for dinner, while the other tasks were household chores without a decision making component.

As predicted, both women and men rated the decision making tasks as being more positive and powerful than the household chore tasks.

In a second experiment, a group of 166 young women were asked to imagine a scenario in which they were either the sole decision maker for the household, or in which they shared household decisions equally with a husband. Participants were then asked to rate the importance of a series of life goals, including neutral goals, such as “travel widely,” and goals related to ambition in the workplace, like “be an important person at work.”

The women who imagined themselves as holding total power over household decisions expressed less interest in advancing in the workplace than women who imagined themselves sharing household decisions equally with a spouse.

A third study of 644 men and women supported these findings: When women were assigned to be in control of the home they expressed less ambition about career related goals. Men, on the other hand, remained just as interested in workplace power, regardless of whether they shared household decisions.

The authors caution that the present studies are limited by the use of self-ratings rather than actual life choices, but they argue that the findings suggest intriguing gender differences when it comes private and public power:

“These results show that, for women, imagining a life in which they wield power in the private sphere reduces their interest in pursuing power in the public sphere,” they write in the journal Group Processes & Intergroup Relations. “Exercising power over household decisions may bring a semblance of status and control to women’s traditional role, to the point where they may have less desire to push against the obstacles to achieving additional power outside the home.”


Williams, M. J., Chen, S. (2014). When “mom’s the boss”: Control over domestic decision making reduces women’s interest in workplace power. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 17(4), 436-452. doi: 10.1177/1368430213497065

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