Remember the 1986 Newsweek cover warning that a college-educated woman older than 40 had a better chance of being killed by a terrorist than of finding a husband? (My mother does.) Now National Journal magazine has come up with a 21st-century corollary: Women who work in the top ranks of the Bush administration are five times more likely to be single than their male counterparts. Delving into the demographics of 367 top administration officials, it found that a scant 7 percent of men were single -- compared with 33 percent of the women.
Part of the reason for this dichotomy, though by far the smaller one, is the phenomenon that drove my mother crazy when I was flourishing in my job but failing to produce grandchildren: A consuming career isn't exactly conducive to romance, and that's far truer for women than for men. Power as aphrodisiac has its gender-based limits. Far better, for matrimonial purposes, to be Henry Kissinger than Condoleezza Rice.
For those of you about to accuse me of a terribly dated, sexist worldview: I hope you're right. But I remember having dinner midway through President Bill Clinton's first term with a White House official -- a smart, attractive woman -- who confided that she hadn't had a date -- hadn't been asked out on one, in fact -- since the inauguration. She's married now, but ask her if having a fancy White House job was a guy magnet.
The bigger explanation for this marriage penalty, though, is the stubborn reality that jobs such as these aren't conducive to married life or, more precisely, to parental life, and that many women who could have such jobs have opted not to pursue them. Had the National Journal parsed the numbers more closely, I'm sure it would have found an even wider gender gap when it came to administration officials with children. Look at the four Cabinet secretaries who are women: Only one, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, has children.
The blunt truth is that senior administration officials who also happen to be dads are more likely than their female counterparts to have spouses willing to take up the parental slack. Many of their wives stay home with the kids or work part-time, particularly for the duration of what amounts to their single parenthood. The husbands of senior administration moms, by contrast, aren't anywhere near as likely to be on -- or to be willing to put themselves on -- this kind of daddy track.
And even if they were, it might not make a huge difference. Whether by reason of biological wiring or social conditioning, women -- not every woman, but many -- aren't willing to give up as much of family life as these jobs inevitably demand. In my experience, when something's got to give, for many women -- and for many more women than men -- that something is their careers.
Talk all you want about creating flexible, family-friendly workplaces. I'm all for that. But jobs at a certain level -- among them the kinds that National Journal looked at, such as assistant to the president, or Senate-confirmed positions -- are by their very nature family-hostile.
This phenomenon, of course, isn't limited to the Bush administration. At the president's last news conference, only one of the 18 questioners was a woman. This wasn't a reflection of male bonding on the president's part but of assignments by news organizations. The networks, wire services and big newspapers have their correspondents called on first -- and those correspondents are almost all men.
Maybe there's sexism at work here, but a far bigger component, I'd guess, is a glass ceiling that is, to a significant degree, self-imposed. I covered the White House once, when I was single. Now that I have children, I'd never consider that job, with its punishing, unpredictable hours and relentless travel. Yet two of The Post's White House reporters, both men, have kids much younger than mine; the third, also male, has older kids. More striking: Among The Post's dozen or so top editors, almost all the men are married with children. Of the three women at that level, only one is a mom.
I'd like to think that my daughters, when they are grown, will find the pull between work and family less agonizing, less intractable, than women today. I expect they will, slightly, as workplaces become more flexible and men as well as women are more unwilling to tolerate 24-7 jobs. But I suspect also that they'll bump up against the same realities, and experience the same conflicts, that I have.
What I'd tell them, in the unlikely event that they ask, is that having it all is best achieved, and perhaps only achieved, in stages. And, of course, to make sure their dad and I have lots of grandchildren.