When it comes to professional women and motherhood, Millenial women are are less optimistic than their Gen X sisters about who’s going to be expected to man the laboring oar of parenthood.
A recent report by the Harvard Business Review indicating that while only twenty-five percent of its Gen X female graduates expected to be focused on child-rearing, a full forty-two percent of its Millennial female graduates do. This follows a recent analysis of jobs data by Vanderbilt Law Professor Joni Hersch, who found only forty-five percent of women from elite schools who are mothers work full-time versus the nearly two-thirds of mothers from other universities who still do. Given all of the hype and media frenzy, one wonders, why aren’t these well-educated and presumably highly employable women “Leaning In”?
One answer may be simply a matter of practicality. The Harvard Business School Gen X graduates who believed they would take the world by storm soon faced the realities of the work environment. Limited advancement, pay inequity, and unfriendly family policies became the dismaying truth for many of those bright and ambitious women once they became mothers. As a result, over forty percent of HBS’s Gen X cohort of women ended up in traditional arrangements with a male breadwinner husband and the female primarily responsible for the children. In sum, their expectations did not reflect their realities.
Millennial women may be looking at their older sisters and realizing that the underlying structures needed for a more balanced sharing of parenting duties haven’t changed. There is still no national child care, paid family leave, or pay equity policies to support working mothers (or fathers, for that matter). As a result, those elite HBS Millennials who are planning on having children are calling it like it is. They know that without major policy changes they will be responsible for child-rearing and aren’t trying to pretend otherwise.
However, there may be something else afoot. Much has been written about women, careers, and the work/life balance issue, but few in the media are focused on an underlying (and seemingly obvious) truth: Despite all of the mom and apple pie rhetoric, we devalue parenting, and motherhood specifically. The sad reality is that professional women who want or have children are often told to hide or deny this side of themselves. We are told if we don’t, our careers will be even more stymied because the research shows the bias against mothers — a “motherhood penalty” — is real.
And yet, many high achieving women have, for a period of time, pulled back on their careers to focus on their families. Take Patricia Nakache. She is one of the few female venture capitalists in Silicon Valley. When her children were young she worked part-time for Trinity Ventures, the firm where she is now a full partner. Sandra Kurtzig, another Silicon Valley icon, founded her first company when she was home caring for her two children. Moving farther afield, did you know Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman Supreme Court justice, was a stay-at-home mother after law school? She launched her incredibly successful judicial career once her children were older. These women, and many like them, have “leaned in” to the full bloom of their lives trading off between paid work and personal work as needed. They debunk the stereotype by showing you can’t briefly “opt-out” and then recommit to your professional life to great success.
But as the Vanderbilt study has confirmed, “opting out” is mostly the purview of the wealthy, an exclusive club for graduates of highly selective universities. The hard truth of the matter is that most of us can’t take time out of our careers. The financial strains are too great. And/or we don’t have spouses with whom to partner. So, we cobble together solutions that are sub-optimal leaving us exhausted and feeling like failures. While the elite vote with their feet and leave, the vast majority of us are forced to make due.
Is this what the previous generation imagined when they rallied to break down barriers? Our mothers (or grandmothers as the case may be) worked hard to battle the bias that kept them from the workplace, but we have, to borrow a phrase from Betty Friedan, a new problem with no name: A bias against motherhood that keeps us (even if only temporarily) from focusing on hearth and home. Like those before, we have come to believe the problem is with ourselves and search for individual solutions. In the end, this means we don’t work together to create institutional systems that would benefit all.
Rather than deepening the already vast class divide, let’s find meaningful solutions that support work/life integration and place family as a priority. Because the truth is, no matter what school we went to, women (and men) will never have balance until society truly values that which matters most: our children.
Lisen Stromberg is an award-winning independent journalist who writes about women, work, and life in Silicon Valley.
To schedule an interview with Lisen, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org