To be published and cited as:
Lupu, L., Spence, C., & Empson, L. (2018), “When the past comes back to haunt you:
the enduring influence of upbringing on the work-family balance decisions of
professional parents”, Human Relations, 71(2): 155-181.
When the past comes back to haunt you: the enduring influence
of upbringing on the work-family balance decisions of
Research on work-family balance decisions generally presents them as an individual’s
rational choice between alternatives. The anticipatory socialisation literature highlights
the role that early formative experiences play in shaping work and parenting decisions.
We go further to emphasise the role of habitus – historically constituted dispositions –in
work-family balance decisions. This relational approach explores how the entrenched
and historically formed dispositions of individuals interact dynamically with contextual
(i.e. organizational) imperatives. Numerous studies have highlighted the difficulties of
reconciling the intense demands of professional careers with family lives. Drawing on
148 interviews with 78 male and female professionals, our study looks at much deeper
rooted causes of work-family conflict in professional service firms than have previously
been considered. We identify four broad patterns of response to the work-family
conflict: professionals may willingly reproduce their parental model, reproduce their
parental model against their will, willingly distance themselves from their parental
model, and distance themselves from the parental model against their will. We show that
the impediments to greater equality lie not only in organizational and societal structures,
but within individuals themselves in the form of historically constituted dispositions
which contribute towards the maintenance and reproduction of those structures.
Keywords: socialization, professionals, professional service firms, work-family balance
decisions, working parents, professional careers, habitus
Bourdieu and others have drawn attention to the important role that parents play in the
hereditary production of attitudes (Bourdieu, 1998; Bourdieu & Passeron, 1964;
Cunningham, 2001; Davis & Greenstein, 2009). Parents are influential in shaping
decisions about whom their children marry, whether they are employed outside the
home, future negotiations over household labour, and in inculcating gender ideologies
more generally (Davis & Wills, 2010; Farré & Vella, 2013; Johnston et al., 2013;
McGinn et al., 2015). Parents often act as role models, challenging societal expectations
and attitudes about what is possible and desirable (Cunningham, 2001) and provide a
career template that their children may mimic, consciously or unconsciously (Dekas &
Baker, 2014). These insights have been recognized by literature on anticipatory
socialization (Jablin, 2001; Kramer, 2010), but hitherto not substantially by literature on
Working parents are an effective means of exploring the influence of early
formative experiences on later career choices because becoming a parent can represent a
‘shock’ to an individual’s life and career (Morrell, Loan-Clarke, & Wilkinson, 2004),
forcing them to reflect upon what they value in their lives, what their responsibilities
are, and what they perceive as now possible to achieve professionally given the new
reality that they experience.
Within the extensive work-family balance literature, professional service firms,
such as accounting, consulting, and law firms (Empson, Muzio, Broschak, & Hinings,
2015) have been a particular focus of researchers’ attention because these organizations
have been shown to inflict near totalizing pressures on individuals to internalize
organizational and professional imperatives (Alvesson & Robertson, 2006; Anderson-
Gough et al., 2000, 2001; Covaleski et al., 1998; Lupu & Empson, 2015; Spence &
Carter, 2014). Most professional workplaces are characterized by a regime of excessive
working hours (60-120 h/week) and escalating availability to clients and superiors (e.g.
Costas & Grey, 2012; Lupu & Empson, 2015; Mazmanian, Orlikowski, & Yates, 2013;
Michel, 2011; Perlow, 2012). As a result, professionals in these firms tend to experience
high levels of work-family conflict (Anderson-Gough, Grey, & Robson, 2005; Perlow,
1998; Sturges, 2012; Wharton & Blair-Loy, 2002). To date, however, very little
attention has been paid to the importance of upbringing and family influences on the
later work-family decisions made by individuals in professional environments.
Adopting a Bourdieusian perspective, with its emphasis on the impact of
historically constituted dispositions – or habitus (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992) - we
argue that practices such as parenting and being a professional are grounded in
individual experience and influenced by organizational context. Simultaneously, these
practices help to structure that context (Gomez & Bouty, 2011). Habitus is, we argue, a
means to complement and move beyond the insights offered by work-family balance
and anticipatory socialization literatures that can help explain the decisions that
professionals make in more relational terms.
Drawing on 148 interviews with 78 male and female professionals in two
professional service firms (totalling more than 200 hours), our analysis provides new
insights into the hereditary production of attitudes to work and parenthood.
Understanding the role of past experience in shaping work-family deliberations, both
latently and expressly, is important as organizations and society more broadly struggle
to promote work-family balance and gender equality (Kornberger et al., 2010; Kumra &
Vinnicombe, 2008). Given the limited success to date of organizational work-life
balance and gender equality policies, we demonstrate the importance of developing
more in-depth explanations for why some professionals find it easier than others to cope
with the dual demands of career and parenthood. We suggest that a focus on habitus
orients researchers towards such in-depth explanations.
We contribute to previous literature in three main ways. First, a focus on the
habitus permits an understanding of work-family decision making as an embodied rather
than merely a cognitive process, as is implied by much previous literature. Second, we
contribute to literature on anticipatory socialization by showing the important role that
habitus plays in mediating and actualizing the influence of upbringing on professionals’
current work-family balance decisions, particularly by emphasizing the relational
aspects of individual dispositions. We explore how this influence comes about and how
it is addressed within the newly created family unit via negotiation with the spouse’s
habitus. Third, we show how work-family balance decisions are both grounded in
individual history and influenced by organizational context. In turn, work-family
balance decisions are instrumental in structuring organizational context.
The rest of the paper is organized as follows. The next section reviews key
research in the area of work-family balance decisions and makes a case for why
anticipatory socialization should be taken into account when exploring professionals’
work-family balance decisions and outcomes. We then present our theoretical
underpinnings relating to a Bourdieusian conceptualization of habitus and point out how
this can help us yield richer insights than offered by anticipatory socialization alone. A
subsequent section discusses our research methodology. We then outline in detail the
main empirical findings. These findings are interrogated in our concluding section
which outlines the paper’s main contributions before offering some suggestions for
Work-family balance decisions
In providing explanations for professionals’ work and career decisions, previous work-
family balance research has focused more on individual level and contextual (i.e.
professional) factors. For example, extant research suggests that an individual’s personal
values, such as beliefs about what it means to be a ‘good parent’, impacts upon their
decision with reference to number of hours worked (Greenhaus & Powell, 2012;
Radcliffe & Cassell, 2014). An individual who identifies highly with his/her family role
will view that as more salient and adopt rules that ensure the primacy of family-domain
factors when making work-domain decisions (Powell & Greenhaus, 2006, 2010). This
‘role salience’ has been shown to be influenced by contextual factors, such as pressures
exerted by managers and spouses, as well as by personal factors, such as levels of self-
esteem (Greenhaus & Powell, 2003). As work and life are interconnected, engagement
in work and family roles are often in conflict since investing in one can undermine one’s
ability to fulfil the demands of the other (Greenhaus & Beutell, 1985; Hochschild,
1997). This is especially true in settings such as accounting and law firms where long
working hours and high organizational commitment are central features of socialization
processes (Anderson-Gough et al., 2001, 2005; Ibarra, 1999; Pratt, Rockerman, &
Family-supportive supervisors (Hammer, Kossek, Yragui, Bodner, & Hanson,
2009) and a family-supportive organizational culture (Thompson, Beauvais, & Lyness,
1999) permit subordinates to adjust their work schedules and make other work
accommodations to meet their family needs, as long as their job responsibilities are
being met. In contrast, organizations which perpetuate high levels of work intensity will
encourage an emphasis of work over family, which is likely to have a strong influence
on those employees who identify most strongly with their career (Greenhaus & Powell,
Work-family balance literature can be criticized for isolating different levels of
analysis, studying individual, organizational and societal factors separately (see
Greenhaus & Powell, 2003; Greenhaus & Powell, 2012; Powell & Greenhaus, 2006).
Thus, much work-life balance research posits differences in work-family decisions
between individuals as either ‘behavioral differences, a function of characteristics of the
situation, or characteristics of the person’ (Parasuraman & Greenhaus, 2002b: 303). Our
perspective emphasizes instead the mutual constitution of persons and context, in
particular the influence of personal history.
Much of this literature studying work-family decisions adopts a cognitive
perspective of decision-making as a choice between alternative courses of action, when
the decision maker has sufficient control over the situation to have a choice (e.g., March
& Simon, 1958; March, 1991, 1994). This cognitive approach is problematic for two key
reasons. First, it strongly connotes a rational choice perspective in which individuals are
free to choose without the constraining influence of personal history. Second, the
emphasis on cognition precludes consideration of the role that embodied dispositions
play in decision making. Our perspective emphasizes instead the way in which their
personal history becomes inscribed into the bodies of individuals, something which has
been flagged to some extent already by literature on anticipatory socialization.
The anticipatory socialization literature shows how individuals do not enter an
organization as a completely ‘blank slate’ (Porter, Lawlor, & Hackman, 1975).
Individuals bring with them a set of dispositions and expectations formed as a result of
their education processes and social experience. Occupational identity formation starts
early, beginning in childhood (Cohen-Scali, 2003). Career expectations are formed
through the process of anticipatory socialization, whereby individuals anticipate the
attitudes, norms and values of an occupation prior to entry. Anticipatory socialization,
from this perspective, occurs before an individual enters the work force, when he or she
‘intentionally and unintentionally gather[s] occupational information from the
environment’ (Jablin, 2001: 734, see also Lucas, 2011).
In the anticipatory socialization literature, the family has consistently been
found to be the primary agent of work related values (Dekas & Baker, 2014; Levine &
Hoffner, 2006; Jablin, 2001; Lucas, 2011; Medved et al., 2006). Children learn a great
deal about work by observing their parents in work-related activities or by hearing their
parents talk about their jobs (Levine & Hoffner, 2006; Roberts, 1991). Parents often act
as role models, challenging societal expectations and attitudes about what is possible
and desirable (Cunningham, 2001). For instance, past research has shown that employed
mothers foster non-traditional gender attitudes in their children (Corrigall & Konrad,
2007; Davis & Greenstein, 2009; Johnston et al., 2014; McGinn, Lingo, & Castro,
2015). These gender attitudes in turn are important predictors of the division of
household labor (Davis & Greenstein, 2009; Fernández, Fogli, & Olivetti, 2004;
Johnston et al., 2014). In particular, women’s gender attitudes are important in
maintaining more equitable divisions of household labor once couples become parents
(Schober, 2013). Moreover, a son’s time spent on household tasks as an adult has been
shown to be associated with having a father who was more engaged at home
(Cunningham, 2001). Recent work suggests that work orientations (such as considering
work a job, a career or a calling) are socially transmitted from parents to children, even
when environmental conditions change or adults work in different occupations from
their parents (Dekas & Baker, 2014). Through socialization or social learning children
observe the decisions and behaviours of their parents, learning skills and capacities that
can be drawn upon as resources later in life (Bandura, 1977).
The literature on professional service firms, the context of the current study,
also implicitly recognizes the role of anticipatory socialization when looking at
recruitment processes. For example, Rivera (2011, 2012) has shown in the US how elite
professional service firms attempt to find recruits that represent a ‘cultural match’, in
terms of the past experiences of potential recruits and existing professional staff. There
are two key ways in which this cultural match can be demonstrated: university
credentials and extracurricular pursuits (Ashley & Empson, 2016; Cook et al., 2012).
However, cultural matching goes much deeper than that, stretching all the way back to
the social backgrounds (Ashley & Empson, 2013) and early childhood experiences of
potential recruits (see Berglas, 2006 and Empson, 2004). Human Resource professionals
within firms acknowledge that they deliberately look for recruits such as insecure
overachievers. As Berglas (2006) argues, the insecure overachiever is driven by a
profound sense of their own inadequacy, stemming typically from experiences of
insecurity in childhood with long lasting effects over their professional lives: ‘they spent
their childhoods looking intently for clues about whether or not they had fulfilled
parental expectations’ (2). Relatedly, Lupu & Empson (2015) argue that professionals
who have within them the ‘hunger’ to enhance their social status, are likely to have a
habitus that is more responsive to socializing pressures from the professional service
firm (see also Maclean et al., 2012).
In summary, literature on anticipatory socialization points towards the crucial
role of the family in shaping the life chances, attitudes to parenting, and future career
trajectories of individuals. Recognition of this can help in the development of a richer
understanding of work-family balance decisions. However, this literature has two
limitations. First, by emphasizing observational learning, memorization and imitation of
role models, it plays down the fact that attitudes to parenthood and work shaped by
upbringing are mostly unconscious and embodied rather than conscious and intellectual,
and hence are taken for granted and difficult to change. Second, anticipatory
socialization often imbues the past with teleological properties, privileging continuity
rather than looking at how the past interacts dynamically with the present in ways that
can potentially lead to discontinuity and social change. These are particularly problems
with the social learning and cognitive approaches to anticipatory socialization.
In order to understand more fully the work-family balance decisions of
professional parents, a theoretical perspective is required that is capable of taking into
account both of these aspects. Specifically, what is necessary is a relational (Bourdieu &
Wacquant, 1992) approach that considers how the entrenched and historically formed
dispositions of individuals interact dynamically with contextual (i.e. organizational)
imperatives. This would be more consistent with the more nuanced approach to change
and reproduction that is found in the anticipatory socialization literature focusing on
communication (see, for example, Medved et al., 2006). We propose an enhanced
relational perspective here by drawing upon Bourdieu’s extensive work on the habitus.
Habitus: a bridge between socialization and practices
Habitus is ‘the way society becomes deposited in persons in the form of lasting
dispositions, or trained capacities and structured propensities to think, feel and act in
determinant ways, which then guide them’ (Wacquant 2005: 316). Habitus is a form of
knowledge that is learned by the body through socialization but that is difficult to
explicitly articulate: ‘It is because agents never know completely what they are doing
that what they do has more sense than they know’ (Bourdieu, 1990: 69). Of crucial
importance here is the distinction between the primary habitus, acquired through
socialization and repetition, mainly in the family, and the secondary habitus, acquired
during subsequent experiences in the workplace (Wacquant, 2016: 48 and see also
Wacquant, 2014). Work-life balance literature has tended to focus on the professional
and/or her context, neglecting the role of early experiences. Yet research shows that
early experiences are crucial in determining future responses, as agents will tend to react
to new experiences by assimilating them to the generative principles previously acquired
(Bourdieu 1990: 60). The acquisition of habitus during one’s early years is done ‘slowly
and imperceptibly, through familial osmosis and familiar immersion… and it constitutes
our baseline social personality as well as ‘the basis for the ulterior constitution of any
other habitus (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977 : 42–6)’(Wacquant, 2014). It is often
acquired tacitly in a non-discursive manner. Style is ‘simply passed on silently from
body to body … it is only by being an apprentice to one’s parents and teachers that one
gains … practical wisdom’ (Dreyfus, 2001: 48):
The essential part of the modus operandi which defines practical mastery is
transmitted in practice… without attaining the level of discourse. The child
imitates not ‘models’ but other people’s actions. (Bourdieu, 2002: 87)
Gendered processes are classic examples of unconscious habitus formation: ‘The
acquisition of gender identity does not pass through consciousness; it is not memorized,
but enacted at a pre-reflexive level’ (McNay, 2000: 39). Modern society still divides
certain kinds of labour along gendered lines, with most of the childrearing and
household duties still being assumed by women. Habitus points to how this division of
labour essentializes embodied cognitive structures about paternal and maternal
characteristics. Practices, such as parenting or being a professional, are an enactment of
a habitus that is historically constituted and ‘which creates homogeneity in social groups
that causes practices to be intelligible and foreseeable – and hence taken for granted’
(Nicolini, 2012: 58). Thus, individuals’ practices and decision-making is based not so
much on the application of explicit or tacit rules as on responding to a feel for the game,
or a gut feeling, a feel for what is appropriate within the existing conditions. This has
two implications: first, most decisions are not the outcomes of a deliberate prior
planning process; second, decisions are immanent and unfold through mundane
everyday practices (Chia & Holt, 2006).
There are both continuities and discontinuities between pre-reflexive and
reflexive modes of behaviour (Maclean et al., 2012). There are, on the one hand, de-
traditionalizing forces that manifest themselves and which open up negotiations around
gender relations pointing towards the possibility of altering established practices. For
instance, men have increased the amount of domestic work they do in recent decades
and spend more time with their children than before (Lyonette & Crompton, 2015). Yet
in spite of this trend men and women often retain ‘deep-seated, often unconscious,
investments in conventional images of masculinity and femininity which cannot easily
be reshaped’ (McNay, 2000: 41). Working mothers are particularly conflicted as ‘living
one’s own life’ seems to be in tension with ‘being there for others’ (Beck & Beck-
Gernsheim, 1995: 22).
Gradual transformations of the habitus pass, for the most part, unnoticed
(Bourdieu 2000:11). More radical transformations, such as those required by an
unexpected redundancy or becoming a parent, might call for a more abrupt process of
adaptation and may increase the chances of dissonance between an individual and their
surrounding field(s). In such situations, through reflexive practice, individuals can shape
or alter the habitus they have inherited (Elder-Vass, 2007; Maclean, 2012). Crises or
errors in the operation of habitus are such moments when individuals may reflect on
things that were previously taken for granted or considered the natural order of things.
As noted by Bourdieu and Wacquant (1992): ‘times of crises, in which the routine
adjustment of subjective and objective structures is brutally disrupted, constitute a class
of circumstances when indeed “rational choice” may take over, at least among those
agents who are in a position to be rational’ (131).
Habitus is, therefore, a rich means of exploring the impact of early formative
experiences on professionals’ work and family decisions. It constitutes a productive way
of bridging the anticipatory socialization and work-family decisions literatures while
simultaneously moving beyond these. First, because it is a historically sensitive, multi-
layered (Wacquant, 2016) concept which actualizes the whole past of the person, it
allows us to explore the continuities and discontinuities between earlier and later stages
in one’s life. Unlike anticipatory socialization, habitus presupposes a focus on the
interplay between historical and emerging dispositions. Second, habitus allows studying
the mutual constitution of persons and contexts because it clarifies how the cognitive,
affective and corporeal structures of persons, such as what they regard as normal and
moral behaviour as parents and professionals, generate and are generated by contextual
structures, such as organizational and societal practices (Michel, 2014). Third, because
the habitus is social and relational, it is shaped through multiple interactions, not just the
structures that pertain to surrounding fields, but also the habitus of other individuals,
notably spouses. In light of the foregoing, the present study seeks to answer the
following research question:
How does habitus influence the work-family balance decisions of working parents in
This paper is based on an empirical study of 148 interviews with 78 professionals in the
accounting and law sector. Participants were drawn from two professional service
firms: AUDIT and LAW (pseudonyms), respectively a leading global auditing and law
firm. These firms were selected because auditing and law are notoriously demanding
professions and so likely to produce empirical sites where significant work-family
conflict is experienced by organizational actors. This paper draws on 200 hours of
interviews conducted in the UK, as well as archival data (e.g., human resources
documents) which provided contextual information about the firms and industry. All of
this data has influenced the conceptual development of this paper, although the first
round of interviews provided the richest narrative concerning the primary habitus and so
is given principal attention here.
Participants were sampled based on characteristics such as sex, age, number of children,
professional grade (see Table 1). The aim was to have a diverse sample, allowing us to
develop or refine emerging theoretical categories (Charmaz, 2006), rather than to create
statistically representative groupings. A similar process was followed in both firms to
recruit participants: first a HR (Human Resources) manager sent an e-mail to all
professionals based in London describing the study, specifying the criteria to be met in
order to participate (have at least one child under eighteen years old). The e-mail
assured individuals that their participation would be voluntary and confidential. Perhaps
surprisingly, a much higher number of male than female parents volunteered for the
study. So, secondly, HR contacted directly specific women they knew to fit the profile
and who subsequently agreed to participate in the study. 25 individuals were interviewed
at LAW and 53 at AUDIT. The focus on working parents meant that the majority were
experienced professionals in either middle or senior management roles.
[Insert Table 1 about here]
By being a historically sensitive concept which actualizes the whole past of the
person, habitus allows us to explore the continuities and discontinuities between earlier
and later stages in one’s life. In this sense, habitus is a rich methodological tool (Spence
et al., 2016) which is not used mechanically to explain empirical findings but rather as a
means through which unconscious processes, understandings and habits can be brought
to the surface and then subject to critical scrutiny.
The first author conducted two rounds of interviews, one more open-ended
which generated the majority of material reported in this paper, and a second one more
structured which was used to gather more material on the participants’ socialization and
‘test’ some of the emerging theories. Interviews lasted between 45 and 120 minutes; the
majority were in the region of 75 minutes. The first round of interviews followed a
narrative interview protocol (McAdams, 1993) with participants being asked to give an
overview of their careers and family life, by starting with the first years, narrate their
lives focusing on high, low and turning points in their lives. Participants were then asked
about important influences on their decisions with regards to work-family balance
(influential people, influential contexts and the influence of the work context in
. As noted by McAdams (2001), individual life stories reflect cultural values
and norms, including assumptions about gender, race and class.
A number of participants referred to the process as ‘cathartic’ and many
expressed gratitude for the reflection space that the interview process allowed. The
following are two representative quotes about the interviewees’ experiences in our
So I suppose if anything it was, it [research participation] sort of forced me a
little bit to reflect upon sort of decisions that we’d made or I’ve made or, you
know, as a family we’ve made about work because I suspect the tendency is that
you don’t actually sort of make those decisions consciously all the time, it just
sort of happens. (Male, partner)
We began data analysis by developing preliminary codes (in the qualitative data analysis
software, NVivo 10) based on our research question and theoretical concerns, which we
used in conjunction with inductive coding techniques to analyse the interview data
(Charmaz, 2006). Analysis and interpretation followed a non-linear path, moving back
and forth between theory and data. The initial phase of coding was descriptive, focusing
on codes such as: school and parental socialization, influential people, influential
contexts, and professional socialization. A second phase of coding was more
The overwhelming majority of participants named in the first instance their parents and the context of
their upbringing as the most influential factors on their work-family decisions and outcomes. The
influence of the spouse was also mentioned as of great importance.
conceptually driven, seeking to explore a deeper level of insight into the significance of
anticipatory socialization for professionals as well as its perceived links with later work-
family choices and outcomes. Our analysis was explicitly informed at this stage by
Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, because it provided a particularly good explanation for
understanding continuities and discontinuities between the past and the present.
From this process we derived a categorization of professionals’ narratives vis-
à-vis family influences. This categorization was organized around reproduction (i.e.
continuity/versus discontinuity), which is a key theme in Bourdieu’s work on the
intergenerational inheritance of attitudes (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1964). This axis of
categorization emerged out of the striking homology that many participants identified
between their own work-family balance choices and the family models in which they
grew up. However, adaptation of habitus is also possible due to exogenous events
(Bourdieu, 1998) which mediate the influence of the primary habitus, often against the
will or established dispositions of the individuals concerned. As Bourdieu has repeatedly
stressed, habitus does not merely ensure reproduction but is a system of perceptions that
is capable of adaptation in response to both reflexive action and exogenous shocks
(Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992: 136). In a further refinement of this categorization, we
therefore developed a second axis around the theme of volition (i.e. willing versus
unwilling) as data analysis revealed that the habitus of the professionals was not only
shaped by the objective historical conditions surrounding its creation, but also by how
they subjectively respond to this, i.e. the extent to which they looked favourably or not
upon their childhood experiences.
Overall, crossing these two dimensions initially produced four statement
categories that individuals articulated in the context of work-family balance decisions:
willingly reproducing parental model, reproducing the parental model against one’s will,
willingly distancing from the parental model, and distancing from the parental model
against one’s will (see Table 2 below).
Although the majority of individuals can be grouped relatively easily into one of these
four categories, there are a limited number who straddle more than one category. We
make reference to these ‘boundary spanners’ below.
Interviews were then coded and instances of disagreement were discussed until
an agreement reached. Inside each statement category we compared and contrasted the
experiences of males and females. Additionally, inside each gender group we considered
the experiences and salience of individuals coming from traditional versus non-
traditional backgrounds (see Table 2 below). To increase the reliability of our overall
interpretation, we routinely discussed provisional interpretations with some informants
during the second rounds of interviews. We present the findings that emerged in the next
[Insert Table 2 about here]
Willingly reproducing the parental model
Accounts of specific behaviours that have their origins in primary habitus formation,
such as a hard work ethic, were recurrent in participants’ narratives. The following
quotes show that there is a continuity between hard work ethics as instilled through
family and professional socialization. We start by looking at men from traditional
families whose father was the main breadwinner. Having seen their parents work hard
throughout their childhood and adolescent life, these professionals, who applied to and
were selected by firms where long hours and hard work are the norm (Kosmala &
Herrbach, 2006; Mazmanian, Orlikowski, & Yates, 2013; Michel, 2011), are prone to
consider hard work as normal:
I saw my father coming back late every day on the weekdays and actually he
continued working on the weekends. […]. It was normal, so I guess that’s why
when I am working now, I have never seen working over the weekend as
something extraordinary, because that is something that I have seen all my life
at home (Landon, senior manager, AUDIT, one child).
This work ethic encompasses a variety of social backgrounds. Landon, for example,
comes from a relatively privileged background - his father was the CEO of a medium-
sized company. At the other end of the spectrum, David comes from a working-class
background, having parents who achieved some degree of social mobility through hard
I’ve always had a very strong work ethic drilled into me anyway, again by my
parents, my family. So, I never needed anyone looking over my shoulder or
giving me a kick up the backside and telling me I needed to do something – I’d
get on and I’d do it. So, I found the environment [of AUDIT] in general one
that suited me quite well (David, partner, AUDIT, two children).
David remarks how the culture of the accounting firm, with long working hours and
professional empowerment, was well suited to his habitus. Thus, he was already
predisposed, due to previous socialization, to actions that produce and reproduce
existing structures. The above quote contains bodily cues (shoulder, backside), a key
feature of habitus, hinting at the perceived embodied and corporeal nature of the
acquired dispositions to work and to parent. David’s narrative also alludes to how he
was subtly but repetitively socialized into this work-family ethic through a process of
I grew up with stories of what my grandparents and my great-grandparents had
done for their families. ... This sort of thing was not told to you as a kind of …
“you know, this is what it means, …this is what you’ve got to do when you’re a
parent” or anything like that. It was just the sort of thing that goes on in your
background, you hear these stories, people reminiscing at parties or wherever or
just talking when they’re remembering people and things that they did and it
sinks in (David, Partner, AUDIT).
Landon’s and David’s cases illustrate how similar dispositions can be formed in
individuals from quite different backgrounds. In both cases, the role of the family in
inculcating particular values associated with hard work ethics is very important.
Landon’s and David’s respective habitus were similarly inculcated during upbringing,
mainly through observation of parental models, through shared narratives.
As work and family are intimately related, the reproduction of work behaviour
is also often accompanied by the reproduction of a certain type of family model with a
breadwinner husband and a stay-at-home wife. In other words, men who follow their
fathers’ work choices may choose spouses who are willing to reproduce their mother’s
choices. In making these decisions, professionals are mainly responding to a gut feeling
for what is appropriate within the existing conditions:
Having grown up with a model, where my father worked, my mother ran the
house, that was kind of the model that made sense, because partnership in an
organization like this is pretty much full on, so it’s pretty difficult to juggle
effectively with being an effective parent. (Adam, partner, AUDIT, two
Typically, men such as Adam assert the importance of work in their lives and look at
themselves as having an important breadwinner role. This reflects their experiences of
primary habitus formation, leading them to consider behaviours similar to those of their
parents as normal and desirable. They are ideal professionals for their firms because
their habitus is in sync with the long-hours culture. However, what is implied by Adam,
even if not explicitly articulated, is that ‘being an effective parent’ is something that is
the preserve of his spouse. Effective parenting is, one can infer, important to him, but is
not something that he feels capable of undertaking.
Switching focus to look at women’s experiences, Paula’s is typical of women
who had a traditional upbringing and who look positively upon this. Following the birth
of her child, Paula wanted to give up work in order to be a stay-at-home mother like her
I just look back really positively on my experience in childhood of always
having a parent around. I feel quite strongly that I didn’t want to have a child
and put them in to full time nursery five days a week so that I could come in to
work. I’ve never really quite understood the point of that and I think that’s
probably shaped by my experiences. (Paula, manager, AUDIT, two children)
Paula’s decision to slow down her career in order to spend more time with her children
was clearly a very emotive one (‘I feel quite strongly’). It was also one which is driven
in part by taken for granted assumptions (‘I’ve never really quite understood the point of
that’). Indeed, many female professionals who were reluctant to delegate childcare had
grown up in a family where the mother was very involved in childrearing and often a
stay-at-home mother. Their socialization has inculcated them with high-standards of
parenting that they hold themselves to. However, they have often found this maternal
imperative difficult to reconcile with the realities of pursuing a demanding professional
career. These women are often conflicted, finding themselves caught in a ‘double bind’
(Bourdieu, 1998): they want to mother as they were mothered, but their firms require
them to work as if they were their (breadwinner) fathers:
Mum didn’t have a career. She did have a job when we went to secondary
school but she still did all the housework and all the dinners […]. So Mum has
been very influential but some of the things that she did, I’ve tried to distance
myself from … I’m trying to match her standard of parenting but adding a
career on to that [emphasis added] (Amy, manager, AUDIT, two children).
As the above quote shows, women are often ambivalent about their mothers - they want
to emulate their mothers’ parenting behaviour, but at the same time they also want to
distance themselves from that and pursue a career. When this negative perspective is
particularly pronounced they may ‘willingly distance’ themselves from their mother’s
life choices (see section below).
In the previous examples, professionals replicated conventional gender roles.
However, within this category of ‘willingly reproducing’ there is a different instance of
dispositional inheritance: of men and women who reproduced non-traditional gender
roles. Andrew is representative of an extremely small number of men who had a hands-
on father and who asserts that this family socialization has shaped his own work-family
I’ve been very clear from a very early age that I wanted a family and I wanted
to make that the priority. I do know that that’s partly come from my father and
I do remember him, … he used to get home from work same time every day. I
never felt he wasn’t there or [wasn’t] interested, … even though he worked in a
high-powered job. (Andrew, director, AUDIT, four children)
Another subgroup in this category is constituted by women who reproduced a non-
traditional family model where their mothers worked and instilled in their daughters the
imperative of financial autonomy and strong professional ambitions. They tended to
express less work-family conflict and have higher career aspirations than women whose
parents fulfilled more ‘traditional’ masculine/feminine roles. For example, Caitlin’s
views are emblematic of other women who had working mothers:
My mum worked and she always drilled into both my sister and I that it was
important to have your own income and have your own independence and not
be reliant on anybody for money. So I think in my head, that was probably the
key factor the whole time I never wanted to a) justify what I spent my money
on and b) have to kind of ask for pocket money. My mum was actually - and
still is - the main breadwinner in my family and the driven one (Caitlin, senior
Caitlin reflects here on where her own aversion to feelings of financial dependence
might come from, drawing a clear link in her memory to the didactic influence (‘she
always drilled into both my sister and I’) of her mother. Women such as Caitlin have
grown up with hard-working, career-driven mothers. They have therefore been
socialized in a context where mothering and career went hand in hand. Our research
suggests that, due to the compatibility between their primary habitus and their
professional environment, such women are less conflicted about their work-family
responsibilities and manage to cope better with the guilt of being committed to their
careers. Indeed, Caitlin’s habitus also equips her better to negotiate role sharing with
their spouses than in the case of women who had stay-at-home mothers:
I think it was a critical point in my marriage in terms of make or break, because I
think the most I have ever argued with my husband was at the point when I went
back to work.... I think for him, mentally realizing that actually, ‘my work is just
as important as yours’, was really, really hard. (Caitlin, senior associate, LAW).
Women’s gender attitudes are especially important in maintaining more equitable
divisions of household labour once couples become parents (Schober, 2013). In Caitlin’s
case, her habitus was formed in a context where her parents took on non-traditional
gender roles, thus providing concrete examples of the skills and capacities that she
would need as an adult if she, in turn, attempted to navigate non-traditional roles in her
Reproducing the parental model against one’s will.
Early family experiences continually resurfaces as an important influence on the choices
of actors. The reproduction of a particular habitus formed during early years seems very
strong, even in those actors who have looked at their dispositions from some kind of
reflexive distance (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 136). Professionals who find
themselves most often reproducing the parental model against their will are men from
traditional backgrounds and women who had working mothers. We examine each of
these sub-categories in turn.
Paul (partner, LAW, four children) laments that he has somehow forgotten the
promise that he made to himself about being a more involved parent than his father was.
He often finds himself ‘going off into the office at the end of the garden on Saturday’ or
even dealing with pressing client demands on Christmas morning when the ‘children are
opening their stockings’. In spite of viewing his father as a negative role model and
wanting to do things differently, Paul realizes to his chagrin that he has essentially ended
up just like him.
Paul’s situation is echoed in that of Jack, another ‘unwilling reproducer’, who
has also stepped back and looked at his dispositions from some kind of reflexive
distance, but has made the vexing decision to prioritize work over family:
I think my biggest regret is that I regarded it as completely inevitable that I will
work every weekend [as my father did] …and so undoubtedly there are things
that maybe I would have done with the kids if I’d be thinking, ‘how shall I use
this time to do something with the kids?’ (Jack, partner, LAW, two children)
Jack expresses not just regret here but a sense of despair and powerlessness over what he
sees as his ‘inevitable’ descent into anti-social, weekend working. Paul and Jack, like
the majority of senior men in our study, have stay-at-home wives like their mothers. In
reproducing this traditional family model, men and women repetitiously engage in
gendered stereotypical behaviour, thus maintaining and reinforcing the status quo, even
when they consciously find this regrettable or lamentable. Moreover, their habitus
conditions them to perceive this model as the only one which could work for them, and
makes it difficult for them to imagine an alternative mode of functioning. The fact that it
is quite often the wife who sacrifices her career shows how both spouses’ habitus work
towards reproduction of masculine social order (Bourdieu, 1998):
It’s upsetting that you have to (emphasis added) make that decision; that we
didn’t feel that both of our careers were compatible with successfully bringing up
our children. … my wife would have liked to have gone back to work but
probably part time, but realistically, the logistics wouldn’t have worked. So the
influence that has on me is that I feel relatively divorced from the upbringing of
our daughter. (John, director, AUDIT, one child)
In spite of wanting to distance themselves from their parental model and be more
involved as fathers, many men end up reproducing that model. In John’s narrative
above, the word ‘decision’ connotes volition, but then he equally feels that this is the
only decision available to him. In being forced to ‘play the game of being a man’
(Bourdieu, 1998: 106), these men are therefore subjugated by the masculine vision of
the world just as women are, albeit in different ways. This reproduction of the male
breadwinner habitus is facilitated by the fact that their immediate family is largely a
reproduction of the traditional model of the family that they grew up in.
Whereas some men unwillingly reproduce the model of the male breadwinner
laid down by their fathers, there are women who also perceived their mothers as
negative role models, yet followed similar paths nonetheless. This is the case with Anne
who finds herself reproducing, against her will, both her mother’s approach towards
childrearing and her determination to work hard:
My mother didn’t attain the level of education that I have. She had this
minimum wage job and she was just always working. She didn’t have time for
us, she was always just so miserable when she was around. Initially my
objective was to do so well I didn’t need to do that kind of job but I think I’ve
found myself doing the same kind of hours, being just as irritable because I’m
working these long hours. … she had this impeccable work ethic. She didn’t
miss work, she was always at work, she was always willing to work long hours
even though it was at the expense of her family. I think somehow initially I
took that on as well, I didn’t want to miss work at whatever cost. My son was
sick and I’d get somebody to stay with him because I had to be at work. (Anne,
manager, AUDIT, two children)
This quote shows how durable and transposable the habitus is from one context to the
other. Even if the social and economic conditions within which Anne’s habitus were
formed are quite different from those within which she currently finds herself, the
habitus still finds ways to hold its sway over her and acts as a centripetal force of
reproduction. Moreover, her organizational context constitutes a propitious environment
for Anne’s embodied dispositions towards hard work and the delegation of childcare to
The professionals in this category (‘unwilling reproduction’) have certain
similarities to those from the previous category in that there is a striking
intergenerational continuity between the places work and family occupy in these
professionals’ lives. However, the professionals in this category stand out by having at
some point consciously decided to do things differently from their parents (generally in
terms of working less and being more present parents). In spite of these conscious
aspirations, attitudes formed during upbringing made them orient themselves towards
‘choices’ that ended up reproducing the status quo. This shows that rational decisions
play only a minor part in work-family choices compared to more unconscious and
embodied dispositions. Thus, professionals continued to reproduce an ethos of hard
work while sacrificing family life even when their initial goals were explicitly geared
towards a more balanced work and family life than their parents had provided for them.
Their habitus might also be resistant to change because organizational and societal
norms reward career commitment while devaluing childrearing and parenting
Willingly distancing from the parental model.
The professionals in our study displayed differing levels of adaptation of the habitus.
For instance, the habitus might not adapt very much at all, as in the case of men who
produce a breadwinner discourse and willingly pursue a breadwinner role. However, the
confrontation of habitus within couples as well as external events prompting a ‘prise de
conscience’ seem to play a major role in any adaptation that might take place.
This section focuses on individuals who look negatively upon their socialization, as in
the previous section. However, in contrast, individuals in this sub-category have
managed to successfully avoid reproducing their own parental model.
Dan, a director at AUDIT and hands-on father, comes from a traditional family.
In reacting against the family model that he was socialized into, he distances himself
from his father who ‘had my mum to do all the childcare and the cooking and the
cleaning and the ironing and all that stuff’. Dan currently does most of the child-related
domestic work, while his wife (the main breadwinner in economic terms), pursues a
very time-intensive, high-commitment career in an investment bank. In order to travel
less and be closer to his children, Dan moved four years ago to AUDIT from another
professional service firm, accepting a 40% salary cut, to the detriment of his long-term
If I had carried on doing what I was doing, I possibly would have made partner,
but the cost for the family life would have been too great, so I’m kind of
reconciled now to the fact that I might not make partner. But it doesn’t really
matter, when you weigh everything else up, and again I’m lucky enough that
my wife has this money. I might be more regretful if I was the sole earner in
the family. (Dan, director, AUDIT, two children)
Dan’s aspirations to be a hands-on father were allowed to take hold in his habitus by
virtue of his wife’s taking on the main breadwinner role. Similarly, the case of Matt
illustrates the role that adaptation and negotiation with one’s spouse has on work-family
balance decisions. Matt is more involved in his children’s lives than most men in our
Jo, my partner, she’s very organized and made sure that we shared the way we
manage Max and his nursery. I hear of some stories where the mother is
working as well but she’s doing all the pick-ups and drop-offs. Jo wouldn’t let
me do that. [Laughter] But also I wouldn’t want to do that either. [I] wouldn’t
think it was fair on her. But also it’s great turning up and picking, doing your
bit in terms of the parenting. (Matt, Director, AUDIT, one child)
Intergenerational differences between fathers and sons notwithstanding, very few males’
habitus seems to have undergone significant mutation.
Gendered practices and norms in public and private spheres act as barriers to
men who want to take on bigger roles at home (Croft, Schmader, and Block, 2015).
Moreover, these individuals may be perceived as less committed professionally because
of their dedication to family responsibilities. As a result, depending on how visible their
family commitment is at work, their careers may be penalized.
Just as a minority of men actively try not to emulate the domestic model set by
their parents, there are women who also seek to avoid what they perceive as the
‘mistakes’ that their parents (particularly their mothers) had made, whether those
‘mistakes’ be associated with an excessive career focus or a regretful stay-at-home
mother existence. As an example of the first subgroup, Jane, a partner in LAW who has
envisaged stepping down in order to be a more involved mother, remembers vividly,
many years later how her mother was absent whereas other children’s mother were
waiting at the school gates:
I remember being picked up by a childminder, and if I was ill, I'd be outsourced
to whoever happened to be available at the time…. I hated it, I hated it, because
I felt like I just wanted to be with my mum and dad. My mum never picked me
up from school when I was at primary school, and then everybody else's mums
would be stood there at the gate […]. And it’s only now that I’ve started re-
thinking about that and thinking, well isn’t that going to be the same for [my
son] if I’m working the way I am, he’s going to have somebody picking him up
from school and maybe he won’t like that and is that what I want for my child?
(Jane, partner, LAW, one child and expecting another)
Jane’s voice is charged with emotion as she recounts how she is constantly
challenging the image of her working and absent mother and struggles with the fear
that her child will feel the same maternal absence she felt as a child.
Jane and her husband – who holds a similar position in another professional
firm - shared equally their parental leave (each took six months off) and they both
envisage in the future the possibility of scaling down their work commitments in order
to be more invested in their children’s lives. Women such as Jane ‘discover’
themselves to be very dedicated mothers: Jane persisted in breastfeeding her baby for
months after coming back from maternity leave. Women such as Jane seem to be
mindful of the place they give to their family and if their balance is pushed too much
towards work to the detriment of family life, they may decide to quit their firms.
The second subgroup of women professionals who have ‘willingly distanced’
themselves from their maternal model had mothers who stayed at home reluctantly.
These women instilled in their daughters a desire to be independent and encouraged
them to have a career so as not to repeat their own mistakes:
I do remember my mother always regretting she didn’t have a job outside the
home and that was something that influenced me and all my sisters. […] She’d
encourage us to find a career where we could work. She was quite academic
herself, more educated than my father, but because of the nature of families and
young children, she’d had to become this stay-at-home parent. (Monica,
director, AUDIT, one child)
Monica has always worked full time and has always been very committed to her career.
Even though she has not followed the same path as her mother, her primary habitus
formation may help explain why she is less conflicted about being a mother and pursues
a more demanding career than some of her female colleagues. In this sense, habitus is
not merely a tool of reproduction, but of change and transformation. In other words, the
habitus can be formed in contradistinction to surrounding structural arrangements by
actors who are reflexive about how dispositions are formed (Bourdieu and Wacquant,
1992). In this sense, habitus is both conservative: a means of inheriting the views of her
mother; and, transformative: creating a propensity to pursue the financial and personal
autonomy that was denied to her mother.
In summary, the individuals from this category try to distance themselves from
what they perceive to be the mistakes of their parents (being a work-oriented and
somewhat absent parent, or a frustrated stay-at-home mother). They tend to manage both
work and family at the same time, even if for certain periods the balance may tip one
way or the other.
Reluctant distancing from the parental model.
This last section focuses on professionals who would have wanted to emulate their
parents’ orientations, but external circumstances prevented them from doing so. In these
cases, the adaptation of the habitus is not the result of an individual becoming reflexive
about their dispositions, as was the case for the ‘willingly distancing’ individuals, but of
external events preventing the habitus from reproducing itself. For example, following
the birth of her second child, Joanne wanted to give up work to be a stay-at-home
mother, as her own mother had been. However, her desire to do so was thwarted by
labour market realities:
[The plan was] I would give up my job and my husband would carry on. But
then he got made redundant, so plans had to quickly change. […] This was just
at the start of the recession and the few jobs around were paying much less than
his current job so we agreed that I would permanently go back to work full time
and he would be a full time dad. (Joanne, manager, AUDIT, three children)
Joanne is one of the tiny minority of women whose spouse is a stay-at-home father.
However, this is the result of strong external circumstances – labour market realities –
that have undermined the propensities of the habitus in this instance, rather than a
positive choice. Decisions regarding work-family balance are the product of an
encounter between historically constituted dispositions and objective reality. These two
can be out of sync, as in the above case. In this situation Joanne is forced to adapt her
habitus and become a different type of mother than she anticipated being, representing a
‘reluctant distancing’. This does not, however, make her unhappy: habitus has the
capacity to adapt itself. In this particular case, external circumstances imposed a reversal
of roles with Joanne assuming the breadwinner role.
There are some individuals who find themselves changing categories as time
progresses. For example, at the time of our first interview with Eva she was working
three days a week in a very senior position and felt extremely strained and conflicted
between her work and the responsibility for her children. She was very emotional,
describing an acute feeling of failure at not being able to rise to the standard set by her
My mum raised us…she was always at home and to some extent I feel guilty
for not giving my children the same because I feel she raised me well and she
had control over the situation. I’m not there every day … and I feel like I’ve
failed them in a way because I leave them with somebody else. I sometimes
think maybe I should be at home with them until they are a bit older. (Eva,
director, AUDIT, two children)
Six months after our first interview, we interviewed Eva a second time on her last day at
AUDIT. After struggling several months to emulate her mother while simultaneously
pursuing a very demanding, high responsibility job, she decided to quit work to become,
temporarily, a stay-at-home mother. She thus went from reluctant distancing to willing
continuity with her family socialization. This seems to indicate that, unless women in
this category find an acceptable compromise between their historically embodied
dispositions and current work demands (as Joanne did), they may decide to either scale
down their work engagement or abandon an environment that thwarts their aspirations
These women experience a gap between their embodied dispositions and their
current situation, which heightens conflict. Schooling also has an important role in
reinforcing this double standard. For example, Christina went to an all-girls private
school that instilled into pupils an aspirational discourse of ‘having-it-all’. Following her
failure to attain partnership in her firm, after ‘having almost killed [herself] in the
process’, she resolved to take some time to be a stay-at-home mother and to rethink her
Part of the disappointment for me in terms of not ticking the partnership box, is
that I don’t feel like I’ve reached my potential because of the children. … it’s
very difficult to accept because you’ve been brought up in [that] particular way
to do everything. There’s difficulty accepting that it isn’t actually achievable
and there has to be compromises (Christina, senior associate, left LAW, two
Christina has come to the conclusion that it is not possible, in spite of what she was
taught to believe, to ‘have it all’. For her, there are real and irreconcilable conflicts
between work and family life - a dissonance between her subjective aspirations and what
is objectively feasible. Christina also goes from ‘reluctant distancing’ from her primary
habitus to ‘willing continuity’. In making the decision to quit she looks back
nostalgically on her upbringing with a stay-at-home mother, which she uses to comfort
herself that she is making the right decision:
I think I now look at everything that I had as a child growing up and think, you
know, that was actually really, I had a really good upbringing (Christina, senior
associate, left LAW, two children).
Christina evinces a palpable sense of relief at having decided to give up work. Her quote
suggests that in spite of her school’s exhortations to “have it all”, her habitus has not
acquired the requisite dispositions to negotiate a more egalitarian share of domestic
responsibilities. In Christina’s case, her husband’s career took precedence over hers,
leaving her to juggle for years the management of the household and children with a
demanding career and an often absent husband. Thus, her habitus predisposes her to
decisions that prioritize family (such as working three days a week) and that, in her
view, have had the consequence of thwarting her objective of attaining a partnership.
Although she expresses some degree of frustration at this, she is ultimately relieved to
no longer be pursuing what she sees as mutually exclusive objectives.
It is noteworthy that there are no men that we could place into the reluctant
distancing category. The greatest proximity of any male to this quadrant was a LAW
partner who at some point, when his first child was young, gave up his career in an elite
law firm to become a more engaged father. His wife was a doctor, so also had a career,
though more flexibility. He later resumed his career and made partner. Looking back on
that period, he is happy to have done it. However, he notes that had we interviewed him
ten years earlier he would have said that he had failed his career and would have felt
sorry for what had happened.
Discussion and conclusion
Our study has asked: How does habitus influence the work-family balance decisions of
working parents in professional environments? In exploring this question via 148 in-
depth interviews with 78 individuals in two professional service firms, we illustrate the
various forms of influence that upbringing has on individuals as they wrestle with work-
family balance decisions following parenthood. We have shown how dispositions
embodied during early years have, in a rich variety of different ways, an enduring
influence on professionals’ work-family balance decisions and practices.
This research offers new insights into why some careers are more affected than
others following parenthood. In this respect, the axes of differentiation highlighted by
this study are highly gendered. For example, men whose careers are relatively
unaffected by parenthood tend to exhibit a remarkably tight coupling between the
primary habitus and the secondary habitus, where they themselves reproduce the role of
principal (if not sole) breadwinner, with a spouse taking on the vast majority (if not all)
of the tasks related to management of the household. Men who are slightly more
conflicted by work-family balance issues are much more likely to come from
households where fathers were involved in childrearing or where they perceive the
father as absent and cast him into a negative role model.
In contrast, the generally greater conflict experienced by female professionals
on the whole can be explained, not in naturalised gender terms, but by reference to the
greater degree of discontinuity between their habitus the organizational context in which
they find themselves. In other words, the female experiences recounted in this study can
be explained, not so much by reference to gender as by reference to habitus. This
encourages thinking about gender in less essentialized terms. As with men, the majority
of women participating in the study come from traditional households where the father
was the main breadwinner and the mother took responsibility for the majority of
household duties. The professional women studied (selected on the basis that they were
currently working) obviously did not reproduce that parental model. Rather, they tended
to experience the dual pressures of a maternal role model that was overwhelmingly
traditional and professional aspirations that were overwhelmingly consistent with the
archetype of the modern career woman.
More specifically, and importantly, habitus also helps to explain why some
women are more conflicted than others and, in contrast, why some women find it easier
than others to delegate childcare in order to pursue demanding careers. This finding is
consistent with research suggesting that daughters of traditional mothers are more prone
to reducing their work commitments after giving birth than daughters of working
mothers (Johnston et al., 2014). However, our study also suggests that an exception to
this was represented by women whose traditional mothers had inculcated strong career
aspirations into them from an early stage, sometimes setting themselves up consciously
as ‘negative role models’, whose plight was to be avoided at all costs. The dispositions
of these women - whose mothers discouraged them from ‘making the same mistakes as
they did’ - were formed during childhood and adolescence and continue to significantly
influence the ‘choices’ that they make today. Their habitus was also resistant to change
because organizational and societal norms tend to emphasize career commitment while
disparaging childrearing and parenting (Hochschild, 1997).
Specifically, our research makes three principal contributions to extant
literature. First, in contrast with a general tendency in work-family balance studies, we
suggest that professionals’ work-family balance decisions may not be simply based on
rational calculation, but emanate from embodied and deeply engrained dispositions,
such as largely unconscious sentiments vis-à-vis what it means to be a good father or
mother. These insights add subtlety and nuance to a body of literature which has hitherto
been framed largely in terms of either rational, cognitive decisions or organisational and
societal norms. Second, we contribute to anticipatory socialization literature by
illustrating how dispositions learned during one’s upbringing can largely transcend time
and space. Becoming a parent activates the dispositions that were inculcated during
early formative years through participation in daily activities, such as repeatedly
watching one’s parents enact their roles, or hearing stories about work-family dynamics.
These embodied dispositions influence attitudes about what is ‘right’ and ‘normal’ for
working mothers and fathers. However, and this represents a crucial advance on much
anticipatory socialization literature, dispositions can adapt as a result of either reflexive
distancing or an encounter with objective circumstances, leading the secondary habitus
to be discontinuous vis-à-vis the primary habitus. Third, via habitus, we show
how work-family balance decisions are both grounded in individual history and
influenced by organizational context. The corollary of this is that work-family balance
decisions are instrumental in structuring organizational context. For instance,
professionals who decide to prioritize work to the detriment of family contribute to
reproducing a certain type of professional culture that will in turn further constrain their
own future discretion in decision-making by normalising extreme work patterns and
delegitimizing work-life balance.
Our findings have implications for future research. Literature on professional
service firms has tended to focus on either post-entry organizational socialization or
recruitment screening processes (Cook et al., 2012), with only a glancing consideration
of pre-university experiences (Rivera, 2011, 2012; Scholarios et al., 2003). As a result,
this literature says very little about why certain individuals might be more responsive to
professional socialization processes and why others will resist the pressures to conform,
following parenthood, for instance. Building on recent work that suggests professionals’
backgrounds have a big influence on future professional dispositions (Lupu & Empson,
2015), our results argue that literature on professions and careers should pay greater
attention to the historical antecedents of professional socialization. Professionals who
join organizations are not blank slates, but are shaped in enduring ways by previous
socialization processes, with family socialization playing an important role.
The findings of this study are important because current approaches to
promoting diversity in society focused at the organizational level in the form of flexible
working schemes or, family-friendly benefits have too often yielded limited results
(Kossek & Lambert, 2005). We show here that the impediments to greater equality lie
not only in organizations and society, but within individuals themselves in the form of
historically constituted dispositions which contribute to maintaining and reproducing
existing structures. If fundamental constraints on gender equality can be identified in
terms of historically constituted dispositions, then organizational responses to diversity
problems might have to become much more elaborate than merely flexible working
schemes or career coaching. Our research raises awareness of the gap that often exists
between unconscious expectations and conscious ambitions related to career and
parenting. If individuals are to reach their full potential, they have to be aware of how
the person that they are has been shaped through previous socialization and how their
own work-family actions and decisions further reproduce the structures constraining
these decisions. This does not, however, obviate the responsibilities of professional
organizations to address the consequences of the work-family dilemma which so many
professionals face (men as well as women, as this study has emphasised). As long as
professional organizations continue to amplify professionals’ innate dispositions to
intense work commitment (Berglas, 2006; Lupu & Empson, 2015; Empson, 2017) their
initiatives to promote work-family balance among their staff will likely yield only the
most marginal changes.
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Table 1. Interviewees' profiles
Table 2. Subcategories used in the analysis
Willingly reproducing: statements suggesting that the person
wants/is comfortable reproducing the model of their parents
because it makes sense for his/her situation
Unwillingly reproducing: statements suggesting that the
person has ended up reproducing what they perceived as a
'negative' parental model in spite of their desire to avoid doing
Willingly distancing: statements suggesting that the person
has willingly distanced herself from the model of their parents
Reluctant distancing: statements suggesting that the person
has ended up distancing themselves from their parents' model
in spite of his/her desire for continuity
The shaded boxes show that we do not have data to fit in those categories. Interrupted lines show that it
is possible for individuals to pass from one category to the other. First of all, we had very few men
coming from non-traditional families, i.e. with fathers involved in childrearing. Second, because of the
competitive and driven nature of professional careers, and because all our participants are currently
working, we do not have in our sample women from traditional families who unwillingly reproduce the
model of their mothers. Third, we do not have men and women from non-traditional families who have
reluctantly distanced themselves from the parental model. Future research could potentially access these
other groups that were not represented in our sample. Doing research in different types of environments
than the professional service firms would allow exploring these other categories.