Sunday, September 25, 2005

Elite Young Women Want Kids and Careers

Louise Story has an excellent piece in the New York Times this week, “Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood.” Story, a recent Yale grad and now an MBA student at Columbia, surveyed and interviewed over 200 Yale women, with some comparable information from other elite colleges. Many of the women she interviewed planned to start serious careers, but to suspend them to be home with their children.

The story is interesting for its main finding that many elite college women are planning to be home with their kids. I am also interested in the framing of the story – that these young women do not find it to be a big deal that they plan to be leaders in society by being stay-at-home moms. On the other hand, some of the Boomer feminists interviewed for the story are shocked that these young women are, as they see it, so backwards. “They are still thinking of this as a private issue; they're accepting it," said Laura Wexler, a professor of American studies and women's and gender studies at Yale. Cynthia E. Russett, on the other hand, a Yale professor from a pre-Boomer generation, says that, "The women today are, in effect, turning realistic."

As KC noted in the comment I responded to a couple of days ago, young women – Millennials, not Boomers or even Gen Xers – do put a high priority on arranging their lives to give the best of themselves to their children. For many, that means being full-time moms when their kids are little. I do not think that they are backward or ignorant of the ways in which “the personal is the political.” I believe, as Prof. Russett suggests, that they are being realistic. Unlike the pioneering women of Yale and places like it a generation ago, these high achieving women have read the research and can count the years from age 22 to the likely end of their childbearing years. They know that they can have it all IF they plan for marriage and children early.

The one important thing I thought was missing from Louise Story’s account is that she frames the choice these women face as either/or – either they have a career, or they have children. Yet life is long, long enough to do both. Women with degrees from Yale and other elite colleges could stay home with kids in their late twenties, all of their thirties, even into their forties, and still have a 25 or 30-year career. They won't lose their brains raising kids, and will gain an age of confidence, experience, and multi-tasking ability.


Crystal said...

I blogged about this same issue a week ago on my blog (Great Expectations), but you're wrong to assume a woman can enter the career force at 40 and have a 25yr. career. Age discrimination is rampant, older people get forced out and I can't think of one person over age 55 that I work with. All our VP's are even in the 45-50 age group and the managers even younger. These women will have an uphill battle to rejoin the workforce.

Gruntled said...

Thanks for the cross-post, Crystal.

I certainly agree that it is hard for middle-aged women to compete with newbies for starting jobs, when promise is the main commodity they offer. The same is true for middle-aged men. In your blog you call for massive social change. So do I. The change I would like to see, though, is employers valuing the experience, social contribution, and self-sacrifice of parents. There is a good, bottom-line reason to believe that established parents will be the most dedicated and resilient employees.

Ask Sandra Day O'Connor.

Ampersand said...

It's worth noting that many Yale students and professors - including two quoted in the article - have said that Story used out-of-context quotation to substantively misrepresent what they said.

Gruntled said...

I thank you for bringing this subsequent critique up. It is not good when the subjects of an interview think their intentions were misrepresented, though they do not say they were misquoted. It is particularly disappointing to me that Prof. Russett now says that what she said to Louise Story is not what she meant to say.

There is one point of Katha Pollit's framing of the article that I think is misleading, which goes back to my main point in citing the article in the first place. Pollit wrote: "But what's also depressing is the way the Times lumps together women who want to take a bit of time off or work reasonable hours--the hours that everybody worked not so long ago--with women who give up their careers for good." Louise Story did not say the women she interviewed were planning to give up their careers for good. She wrote that they were planning to stay home when their kids were little. You can do both.