Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week we’re talking about women in the workplace.
Amanda Bennett is a contributing columnist for The Post.
Mythology isn’t very kind to strivers.
Icarus flies too close to the sun and gets melted back to earth. Prometheus steals fire and ends up chained to a rock with eagles pecking out his liver. Adam grabs for knowledge he shouldn’t possess and … well, you get the picture.
For women, the penalty for ambition is infinite torture, which comes at least in part from a series of relentlessly negative myths. The message seems to be that if you are ambitious, you will be punished. If you focus on your career, no man will have you. Even if you do marry, you’ll never have children. And if by some miracle you do manage to have kids, you are going to ruin them. In every case, you will end your days regretting your choices.
Such scary thoughts have been repeated with enough frequency to be considered to be settled truth. Yet none of these assertions — many first raised decades ago — turns out to be completely true. So why are they still important? Because they are scaring a whole new generation of young women away from their ambitions. “I don’t want to be stressed and miserable and not have a life — the way your generation was,” one young woman told me, to my astonishment.
Let’s look at some of the myths themselves, starting with an old chestnut:
MYTH 1: Career women will become old maids.
We all know the fear: Women who postpone marriage to focus on their careers will end up old, crazy and alone. Yet the famous 1986 assertion — that a woman who hits age 40 without marrying has a better chance of being killed by a terrorist than of having a wedding — proved so decisively wrong that even its chief perpetrator (Newsweek, in a cover story titled “The Marriage Crunch”) took it all back 20 years later.
By 2010, the 30-to-40-year-olds who worried about never having a white dress or eating over-frosted cake were 53 to 63 years old — 23 years older than they were when that article ran. And according to the U.S. Census, only 7 percent of women in that age group never married. What really happened is that the increasing number of older singles entering the workforce in the ’70s happened to coincide with a sharp increase in the marriage age. We married late, but we married.
MYTH 2: Even if you do get married, you’ll die childless.
Sometime in the last 30 years the words “biological clock” came to be associated with the looming risk of childlessness.
“A painful, well-kept secret,” is what Sylvia Ann Hewlett called it in a 2002 article in Harvard Business Review. A survey she commissioned and later turned into a book concluded that “between a third and a half of all successful career women in the United States” between ages 41 and 55 were childless. The highest rate of childlessness, Hewlett asserted, was among women in “corporate America”: 40 percent of them were involuntarily childless.
Her survey may have found that, but time proved her survey wrong. This year, Harvard Business School released a survey of its own graduates — people who might reasonably be considered a good proxy for “successful.” How many female baby-boomer MBAs were childless at the time of the survey? A way smaller percentage than that reported by Hewlett — 21 percent.
Of course, that still sounds pretty scary. But the rate of childlessness for all women, regardless of ambition or education, reflects similar trends. So, yes, hard-charging, better educated women are less likely than average to have children. But only slightly, and not by the huge numbers Hewlett asserted.
According to a more recent survey by the Pew Research Center, the rates of childbearing among so-called “successful” women have begun to soar: “Across all educational groups, childlessness has either remained constant or declined in the past two decades, with the biggest declines occurring among more educated women.”
MYTH 3: Okay, you have kids. Now you’re stressed and overwhelmed.
So why the frenzy? The researchers posit that the real sources of the “overwhelmed” feeling are factors other than work. One is the more fragmented ways we spend our time. We also have ever-expanding menu of things we can choose from to do, making us feel as though we’ll never get to them at all, even though we don’t need to. There’s also the fact that a lot of us secretly want to be busy, because we’ve come to associate “busy” with “important.” Women talk themselves into feeling too busy, and into talking about too being busy. Then they feel like they are too busy because they’ve told themselves they are.
MYTH 4: All this work and freedom has brought you nothing but misery.
So how about the fact that, despite our success, we are all secretly miserable? Why value career and independence if one of the things it has made us is unhappy? Four years ago, Anne-Marie Slaughter, in her gut-twisting epic “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” asked that question. Despite women’s gains in wages, education and prestige, “women are less happy today than their predecessors were in 1972, both in absolute terms and relative to men,” Slaughter writes, citing the paper “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness.”
She’s right, in one way. That’s what the paper’s executive summary says. But actually read through the paper itself and you will find a vastly different conclusion than the one Slaughter implies. Women are less happy, it is true. But the study shows that the decline in happiness is no different if you are a working woman or stay-at-home mother. In fact, the authors of the study specifically rule out work-family conflict as a source of women’s growing unhappiness:
“A common suspect for the source of women’s declining happiness is the burden of balancing children and a career. … [but] there are no statistically significant differences in the trends for women with and without children … if female unhappiness is rising due to the extra pressures of combining home and market work, then one would suspect that the decline in female happiness would be particularly large among women in their peak child-rearing years or women with young children in the home.”
Yet, the authors write, the study shows no such additional happiness deficit among working mothers with kids. The declines are similar among all the groups. Women who work. Women who don’t. Women with children. Women without. In short, the researchers say that they know women are becoming less happy, but they can’t explain why. What they are pretty sure of is that it isn’t caused by work-life conflict.
MYTH 5: You’re happy, but congratulations! You’ve ruined your child.
This is the one that keeps working mothers up at night: the idea that they gain satisfaction at the expense of their children’s happiness. But the evidence all around us is that it’s just not true.
The oldest children of the earliest wave of full-time career mothers are pushing 40 themselves now, and they have been studied within an inch of their lives. In her book “Perfect Madness,” Judith Warner cites studies from 1955, the mid-1970s, 1988 and 1996 that all found pretty much the same thing: There wasn’t much of a difference between children of working and non-working mothers. There are now even several meta-studies — that is, studies of the studies themselves. Warner cites two that reviewed hundreds of individual studies without finding any clear differences between children of working and stay-at-home mothers.
MYTH 6: OK, so you managed both. But you don’t count.
This one is my personal favorite. It’s also titled “women can’t have it all.” Of course that particular phrase is a straw (wo)man. Nobody has it all. What we are really asking here is: Can a woman have a career — even an ambitious, intense one — and still raise happy kids without going crazy herself? We seem committed to believing this terrible message even in the face of multitudes of evidence to the contrary. After all, Slaughter’s Atlantic magazine article on the subject attracted about 2.7 million readers — one of the most read, if not the most read, in the magazine’s history.
The only problem is that so many women are managing to have high-powered careers while raising kids, and seemingly doing it well. By my tally, of the 36 women who have ever been governors, all but four had children — a higher rate of motherhood than for the general public. All five current women governors are mothers. The 18 female mayors of the cities with a population over 200,000? Only three — or 17 percent — are childless, not much higher than the norm. Fifteen of President Obama’s Cabinet secretaries have been women; of those, only 2 (7.5 percent) were childless.
The “this can’t be happening” argument contains a wonderfully diabolical premise: Its proponents simply declare such examples of success — and indeed anyone who mixes a high-powered career with child-rearing – as “rich and privileged.” And therefore, irrelevant.
Women who have made it to this level of success, whether in politics or business, might very rightly be called “rich and privileged.” But did they start out that way? Even Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer, two of the richest self-made women in the United States, came from relatively modest backgrounds. (Sandberg’s parents: ophthalmologist and teacher-turned-stay-at-home-mother. Mayer’s parents: engineer and art-teacher-cum-stay-at-home-mother.)
Why do we continue to punish ambitious women with these scary scenarios? Aren’t there enough real barriers to women’s success that remain — gender stereotypes; different standards for evaluations; the relative inflexibility (still) of most workplaces; the financial penalty women pay if they don’t negotiate; and the social penalty they pay if they do. There have been tremendous gains for women over the past 40 years, so why discourage young women from standing on the shoulders of the accomplishments of the generations that went before?
You can’t win if you don’t show up.
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