Very few women make it to the top of their profession and among those that do, almost half have no children or other care giving responsibilities. The message for working women everywhere has been clear: to make it to the top, you have to pick one—your family or your career.
In their book, Women at the Top, Diane Halpern and Fanny Cheung present a new look at how women can create dually-successful lives and answer the most pressing question of our time—can women have it all? I interviewed both authors about their book, Women at the Top.
Diane F. Halpern, Ph.D.
Diane F. Halpern is Trustee Professor of Psychology and Roberts Fellow at Claremont McKenna College. She has won many awards for her teaching and research, including the Outstanding Professor Award from the Western Psychological Association, the American Psychological Foundation Award for Distinguished Teaching, the Distinguished Career Award for Contributions to Education given by the American Psychological Association, and the California State University’s State-Wide Outstanding Professor Award.
Diane was president of the American Psychological Association in 2004 and is a past president of the Society for Teaching of Psychology. Her recent books include Thought and Knowledge: An Introduction to Critical Thinking, Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities, and Women at the Top: Powerful Leaders Tell Us How to Combine Work and Family. She joined Mike Gazzigana and Todd Heatherton as the third author of the third edition of the introduction to psychology textbook Psychological Science.
Diane has been identified as one of the “Eminent Women in Psychology.” Her many previous books have all received acclaim and have become the “gold standard” in their field. Please see her books for the reviews.
Fanny M. Cheung, Ph.D.
Fanny M. Cheung is Professor of Psychology and Chairperson in the Department of Psychology at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Since 1975, Dr. Cheung has been active in promoting rights of and services for women and the disabled in Hong Kong. She spearheaded the War on Rape campaign in the late 1970s and founded the first community women's centre in early 1980s. She mobilised women's groups to advocate for the establishment of a women's commission and the extension of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women to Hong Kong. She has been actively involved in supporting psychiatric rehabilitation for 20 years. In response to residents' rejection of facilities for the disabled in the community, Dr. Cheung has run a series of public education campaigns since the 1980s to change attitudes and promote public acceptance of mental handicap and mental illness.
Dr. Cheung has served in many government committees and advisory bodies. She was awarded the Badge of Honour in 1986, appointed as Justice of Peace in 1988 and awarded the Honour of Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1997.
Dr Cheung's research interests include gender roles, violence against women, personality assessment, and psychopathology among Chinese. She has co-organized a number of international and regional conferences and workshops on psychology, mental health, and gender.
Interview with Diane Halpern and Fanny M. Cheung
How did you come to develop an interest in the work-family area such that you both collaborated in writing this book?
Fanny and Diane met in 2001 during a court case in Hong Kong regarding the way girls and boys were allocated spaces in secondary schools. During the long period in which we worked on the case, we became friends and realized that we had many common interests, including the way women, especially mothers, manage demanding high pressure careers and family responsibilities.
For Fanny who has campaigned for women’s status and development in Hong Kong andChina for the past 25 years, she recognized that many of the barriers to women are based on their gender roles, especially the traditional roles tied to caretaking in the family. Women’s roles in society have changed in many ways in the 20th century. Building on the achievements of the women’s movement in the 20th century, she expanded her attention to women as agents of change. She wanted to learn from the role models of women who have overcome these barriers.
How did you go about co-writing this book? Was the process challenging?
The ideas for the study came from Fanny who was awarded a Fulbright New Century Scholar award in 2004 to conduct a study on work-family interface in Chinese and American women leaders. Fanny did all of the interviews, so she is the driving force that lead to this book. Diane hosted Fanny for her study in the United States, and collaborated on the psychological and cross-cultural interpretation of the results. We were fortunate in being able to work together on the book.
In your interviews with 62 women leaders from China, Hong Kong and the United States, what did you find most moving and inspirational about their stories and was there anything that shocked you?
For Fanny, learning from the life experiences of so many successful women was most rewarding. The women leaders were generous and candid in sharing the joys and challenges in their lives. They were keen to offer lessons they have learned to future women leaders.
For Diane, the stories told by the Chinese women, who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, were the most fascinating. They told about a chilling period in history when books were burned and education was denigrated. Yet, they managed to succeed, sometimes by joining the military, other times surviving extreme poverty and hardship. Their life stories made history come alive. Both Fanny and Diane were surprised by the cross-cultural similarity in the lives of these extraordinary women. Originally we thought there would be more cultural differences between American and Chinese women, but we found all of the women leaders in our study put their family first and devised ways to integrate their work and family roles. We called this the "culture of gender" because being female seemed more salient that being American or Chinese.
One of the concerns you have about current understandings of the work-family issue relates to the dichotomy between these two areas and the notion of sequencing in how women manage their child raising and their career. Can you please explain these concerns and how you would rather that the work-family issue be acknowledged?
These highly successful women, for the most part, did not compartmentalize their lives. Work and family flowed together. Diane had some trouble recognizing the dichotomy of work and family as being a western concept. She learned that it is only by stepping away from one's own culture that we are able to see it. Previous psychological research conducted in the West emphasized the conflict between work and family domains. We prefer to think of work-family combinations or interactions rather than two separate spheres of life. It seems more natural and the women we interviewed agreed. They showed us it is possible to weave these spheres together.
Why do you argue for an integration of the work family spheres as rather than a separation?
We all live one life, not two. Highly successful women need to find ways to care for family members and handle high levels of stress at their jobs. This means that they have to be available to children at various times during the day, often leaving work to attend school plays or teacher conferences. They need to be able to work at home after the children go to bed or at other times such as waiting in a doctor's office to fit it all in. Strictly compartmentalizing work and family will make it more difficult to "do it all." To some of the women leaders, they valued their work because they contributed to their family.
Do cultural differences influence perceptions of work-family?
Certainly. For many Chinese, working long hours is done in service of one's family, so it not seen as being anti-family. There are also cultural differences in how the family roles were being performed. For example, Chinese mothers emphasized the family dinners and children’s homework; American mothers emphasized attendance of their children’s ball games and school plays.
With society's gender expectations and division of labor being dichotomous to work place policies, how effective do you think regulations can be to bring about change when prejudicial attitudes are systemic?
It is hard, perhaps impossible, to have equality at work as long as there is inequality at home. Diane thinks that we need social and legal policies to create change, recognizing that the reality of equality will lag the legal requirements. True social change takes time, but we can hasten it with social and legal policies. Fanny believes that social and legal policies should be complemented by sustained public and family education from a young age. It may take a few more generations before true equality in work and family domains becomes the norm.
How do you implement your philosophy in workplaces you consult in?
We still struggle with ways to integrate work and family. The exact nature of the demands varies with the family care responsibilities we have and the characteristics of our work. When Diane's children were young, she left work earlier than she does now that they are grown. Our challenges vary throughout the adult life cycle. In Hong Kong, Fanny is fortunate to be able to be supported by affordable domestic help. She also chose to live on campus to save time from commuting. Instead of looking for "how to" answers, it is sometimes better to develop a philosophy and vary one's actions in accord with that philosophy.
In becoming successful leaders in your fields, how have you juggled work and family demands?
Sometimes well and sometimes not as well. Fortunately, we both have supportive husbands. We recognize, however, few if any marriages are actually equal in terms of who is responsible for child care and other family care responsibilities. Young women are likely to say that they want a husband who will share all of the work (and joy) of caring. We privately wonder how many will find these characteristics in a mate. In our book, we interviewed only women leaders who were or had been married. Unfortunately, we did not have a sample of successful lesbian women with children. We assume that many of the findings might be the same, but since so much of the burden for women with children is inherent in sex role stereotypes (e.g., women do the caring work), we cannot generalize to other types of partner relationships without obtaining additional data.
What advice do you give to young aspiring women to empower them to negotiate their professional ambitions and family life?
We tell them to be clear about their values and expectations. The women leaders in our sample were ambitious, although none said she was ambitious early in her career. We advise young aspiring women to be themselves and not follow any stereotyped belief about what women can and can't do or how they should act when in powerful positions. We also advise women to prepare for the lives they want. If having children and a career are part of their life plan, then they need to prepare for both. This is an exciting time in history for women who are smart, hard working, and open to new ways of planning their best life.