Off-campus UMass Amherst users: To download dissertations, please use the following link to log into our proxy server with your UMass Amherst user name and password.

Non-UMass Amherst users, please click the view more button below to purchase a copy of this dissertation from Proquest.

(Some titles may also be available free of charge in our Open Access Dissertation Collection, so please check there first.)

Understanding how women make meaning of their multiple roles: A cognitive-developmental analysis

Michelle C Stefanisko, University of Massachusetts Amherst


There are growing numbers of women in the workforce, with increasing numbers of working mothers. The numbers of women with multiple role responsibilities, such as wife, mother and paid worker, is on the rise. To date, the multiple role literature reveals seemingly contradictory findings in regard to the impact of women's different role experiences on their overall well-being. Some suggest that the more roles that a woman occupies, the greater the likelihood that she will experience the harmful effects of role conflict, stress, depression, and even physical illness. Others suggest that the as women's number of roles increases, she may develop internal resources to 'buffer' against any potential negatives. Hence, these researchers find increasing roles related to higher self-esteem. The specific findings of the multiple role literature will be explicated in the review. The purpose of this study is to provide a phenomenological approach in order to derive meaning from the apparent discrepancy in the multiple role literature. Eighteen working mothers, between the ages of 35 and 50, volunteered to participate in in-depth interviews about their role experiences. Each of these women have been in the roles of wife, mother, and paid worker for at least five years. These middle-class, Caucasian women have at least two children living in their homes. Through the interview conversations, these women described what it means to be a multiple role woman, identified the benefits and costs of their life roles, and discussed how they negotiate and manage their role responsibilities. A cognitive developmental framework, Self-Knowledge Theory, was used to explore the processes and meanings of women's role experiences. The Experience Recall Test (ERT2) combined with an in-depth interview was used to elicit how certain women make meaning of their multiple role experiences. Results were analyzed both thematically and developmentally, with particular attention to the influential variables identified in the multiple roles literature. This data supports the premise that the perceived quality of the multiple role experience is related to whether the perceived outcomes will be more positive or negative. This project also suggests that self-knowledge capacity impacts how people experience, understand and describe the quality of their role experiences. As the stage of self-knowledge increases, the quality of role experiences is described with greater personal agency, more breadth and depth, and more insight into the relationship between inner states and outside experiences. Higher self-knowledge stage is associated with a greater utilization of tools for managing role conflict, a lower frequency of reported distress, and a more sophisticated, systematic approach to negotiating conflict with their partners. The findings of this project informs future interventions for the growing numbers of working women. Employee assistance programs, mentoring programs, family support services, higher education support services, and other resources for multiple role women benefit from the findings of this study.

Subject Area

Womens studies|Developmental psychology|Academic guidance counseling

Recommended Citation

Stefanisko, Michelle C, "Understanding how women make meaning of their multiple roles: A cognitive-developmental analysis" (1997). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9809402.