Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Do women choose children over careers?

An article in the Los Angeles Times recently reported that the number of female executives on Wall Street, while already alarmingly low, is decreasing. While the article does not suggest gender discrimination, one has to wonder why female executives are such a “rare species.”

According to Warren Farrell, author of “Why Men Earn More,” women opt out of certain opportunities because they prefer flexibility. Men, on the other hand, are more willing to put in the long hours required to climb to the top. There is no such thing as gender discrimination in the work place- no glass ceiling. It is a simple matter of choice and the only reason the glass-ceiling myth continues is because men are afraid to confront the myth.

So, John Stossel, host of ABC’s 20/20, confronted the myth in a segment titled, “Is the Wage Gap Women’s Choice?” To which he answers with a strong resounding “YES!” He reasons: “Suppose you’re an employer and you can hire a woman to do the same job as a man but pay her less. Why would you ever want to hire a man?” But of course men do get hired. Assuming employers are rational economic actors, it follows that the reason men earn more is simply because they work more.

Maybe these guys are right. Maybe corporate America is just dying to hire females and promote them into leadership positions. I recently interviewed with Reed Smith, a law firm in San Francisco that advertises their Women’s Network Initiative designed to “position women appropriately for advancement and success.” Other firms have similar programs. But still these firms are run by men. For instance, females only account for 20% of Reed Smith’s partners. Which begs the question- are my female colleague and I really giving up advancement opportunities? And for what?

Joan Williams chalks it all up to domesticity, which is a gender system that divides the male-market work from the female-family work. Even though women are graduating in the same numbers from top universities, and are positioned to take leadership roles, they remain iconically and practically associated with the domestic/family sphere. Moreover, women use choice rhetoric to describe decisions made in favor of domesticity. Williams gives numerous examples of high achieving women who trade in high-status, traditionally male careers to raise families, fulfilling an expectation that is never applied to husbands/men.

I agree with Farrell and I agree with Williams. I do not think that corporations and firms have separate pay scales for men and women. But I also do not believe that women truly choose to forgo opportunities for advancement in favor of child rearing. Rather, as Joan Williams puts it, “the withdrawal of men from family work means that women have two choices: they can either do it themselves or leave it undone.” That is not a real choice.


KayZee said...

I find the issue of domesticity and the question over the female career to be especially prevalent in the legal field. The facts reported in the LA Times article, that the number of female executives are declining, absolutely shocks me. Considering the data we have seen in regards to female enrollment in higher education, which you address in this blog post, would suggest that more women would be assuming executive positions. Williams suggests that when push comes to shove, women "choose" to return to traditional roles of child-rearing, unlike men.

This leaves me with so many questions. What is the "turning point" at which women make this "choice" to forego their careers? Is it pressure from their partners, family, friends or potentially their colleagues? What about the female professionals who do not have children? Are they remaining in executive positions at a higher rate than professional females with children?

On the other hand, what affect do our personal feelings and opinions about the female professional vs. the traditional child-rearer, have on our female colleagues? Many times, I have heard my female law school classmates, when discussing female friends who have started families, describe their friends as "just" a stay-at-home mom. There is a assumption that becoming a professional is a higher calling. But what about the women who genuinely make a choice to raise their children, rather than work? Are they going to become a social taboo in time?

A. M. Ayoub said...

I think that there is undoubtedly some sort of "glass ceiling" which prevents women from ascending to the top positions that are dominated by men, but I think this "ceiling" is less and less about abject discrimination than it is about the incredible social pressure that women feel to be home with their children. Women are made to feel guilty for opting for careers "over" family, while men are rarely subjected to such guilt.

Conversely, men undoubtedly feel pressure to perform and succeed in their careers and to not "wimp out" to help their wives with their kids. The gender role system, as it is now, is likely not satisfying either sex! I believe that until there is more value placed on traditional "women's work," the stay-at-home position will continue to be occupied primarily by women. If being a stay-at-home dad were less stigmatized, then women who wanted to would not be forced to choose between the "selfish" career path or the traditional homemaking role - men and women would, in theory, occupy each sphere equally and their contributions would be equally valued by society.

I know plenty of men who would love to be stay-at-home dads and I know plenty of women who would love to devote more of themselves to their careers; I say, let's make more space for men at home, and women might naturally start to fill the higher ranks at work.

Rose Sawyer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rose Sawyer said...

In Judith Baer's "Our Lives Before the Law," she comments, "Many may get to 'do justice' because women must 'do care.' Privileged people -- men -- get to choose. They choose justice, rights, autonomy, separation over care, nurturance, connection. Subjugated people -- women -- have duties assigned to them. They are assigned care."

On one level, perhaps a personal one, this statement rings true. I strongly identify with Emily from the Baer article, who chose to go to a graduate school close to home on the basis that if she went further away, her parents would be hurt by her inaccessibility. My parents never asked me to move back to my hometown -- I just felt an overwhelming sense that it was the right thing to do. Part of it felt "selfless," and part of it was driven by a fear of mortality and a desire to spend time near to the people who I love (trumping other desires, such the desire to live a chic city life). This makes me wonder: have I subconsciously accepted that I am "assigned" care? Has this been influencing all of my decisions without me knowing it? I'd guess that the answer is at least partly yes.

On another level, though, it seems that in contemporary society BOTH men and women are "assigned" their gender roles. As A.M. Ayoub pointed out, the status quo is likely "not satisfying either sex." A man in the same position that I was, and facing similar but gender-modified influences (earn money versus wanting to spend time with loved ones) might subconsciously choose to pursue glamor and the worldly success that so often accompanies it, even if this means spending the days of his life far from the people who he loves.

At the end of the day, would I want THAT to the be gender role that I was facing? No. I think that when my time does come I will die happier, with fewer regrets.

Of course, everyone has to find his or her own balance. I, for example, do not want to stay home with children; I want a house husband. Some individuals might make the same "care" argument that I made in regard to living near my family in regard to staying home with children. That's cool. But at the end of the day, each person only lives once, and I think the real answer is that each person has to find a formula that will leave him or her without regrets. When gender roles obstruct, rather than enable, self-fulfillment, then certainly, they must be disregarded.