Aged 30 something?

Over the past couple of weeks, in preparation for my TEDx slot on the future of work. I've been talking with various women in their early thirties. They've been talking about the difficult choices they feel they are having to make between:

  • Looking for a long term committed relationship
  • Having children which they believe will as one person said 'decelerate' their careers
  • Accelerating their careers, or at least staying on a career path but sacrificing one or both of the committed long term relationship and children

All the women I spoke with are of the view that they can't 'have it all' in the way that men can have a committed relationship, children, and a career. For women both their future financial health and their work future is in the melting pot and will be shaped by these significant life decisions and choices. In the usual way of synchronicity the Economist last week had an article 'The Mommy Track' noting that 'Several factors hold women back at work'. Schumpeter's (the writer's) conclusion is that

The biggest obstacle (at least in most rich countries) is children. However organized you are, it is hard to combine family responsibilities with the ultra-long working hours of the 'anytime, anywhere' culture of senior corporate jobs.

The women in their thirties I've been talking with are single, married, with and without children. They are all of the view that having children is not compatible with maintaining a career track in corporate America/Europe. The Economist article provides a few figures around women in the thirties age-group in the US workforce.

America's biggest companies hire women to fill just over half of entry-level professional jobs. But those women fail to advance proportionally: they occupy only 28% of senior managerial posts, 14% of seats on executive committees, and just 3% of chief executive roles " and notes that "The figures are worse still at big European firms.

This bears thinking about more closely and a paper The changing impact of marriage and children on women's labor force participation from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics helps with this.This shows that:

The labor force participation rate of single mothers aged 25–44 years increased 9 percentage points between 1993 and 2000, while the rate for single women aged 25–44 years with children aged 5 years or younger jumped a full 14 percentage points over the same period. In contrast, the labor force participation rate for married women with children increased 1 percentage point, and the rate for married women with children aged 5 years or younger was flat. Even more interestingly, the negative impact of children on the labor force participation of married women increased.

The paper explains in more detail the research methodology and findings and makes the statement that:

The key contribution of the analysis presented in this article is to emphasize that focusing only on the effect of children on labor force participation provides an incomplete picture of the very different effect that the presence of children has on single women compared with married women.

The effect of marriages that also include children on the workforce is material and was a finding in a November 2007 McKinsey survey What Shapes Careers found that:

54% of the senior women executives surveyed were childless compared with 29% of the men (and a third were single, nearly double the proportion of partnerless men)."

From these two surveys one can take a view that married women with children are unable to progress through the corporate career ladder at the same pace as single women with or without children, or married women without children. So one view is that if you are a woman and want to keep your career path, but want to have children then have them as a single parent. Another is that if you want to have a career and also marry then do not have children.

This leads Schumpeter, of the Economist, to say that "It would be better if women could rise naturally to senior executive roles … But how can this be done when everything tried so far seems to have failed?"

One of the women I talked with – now married and the mother of a 2.5 year old observes that.

I feel like my own journey has been gratifying and successful, but nothing at all like what I imagined it being 10 years ago (when I was 22 or so). For context, I had just graduated college and was facing the post-2001 bust/recession AND the year after 9/11. As a 20 something with few female role models in the business or professional world (except for great teachers), I had a vague notion that I'd spend my years climbing the corporate ladder. I was determined to go as far as I could go, and had a few mentors who'd spent their lives with 1 or 2 major firms. Now, … being a mom. I think I have to carve out more room for all the roles I want to have versus the ones I'm given or offered.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, in her July/August 2012 Atlantic article Why Women Still Can't Have It All commenting on a talk she had given to a group of people in their mid-twenties said

Just about all of the women in that room planned to combine careers and family in some way. But almost all assumed and accepted that they would have to make compromises that the men in their lives were far less likely to have to make.

This has been the pattern I came across in my discussions with women. Over these six statements emerged in relation to marriage and children.

  • Men are not looking for long term committed relationships – they can get what they want from short term relationships.
  • Men (in the US) are worried about marriage because they will become liable for the student loan debt of their wives
  • Men are not willing work part time or leave the workforce fully in order to look after their children while their wives/partners work for career advancement
  • The way work is perceived and organized in most corporates is skewed against women who want to have children and give some of their time to raising a family. (Childrearing is incompatible with standard career routes).
  • The only way women will get equal access to career advancement is if men demand flexible work patterns that do not jeopardize their career advancement i.e. either parent should have the same ability to rear children and maintain equal parity in career advancement.
  • Men should be as willing as women to decelerate their careers in order to help bring up children

So then I turned to conversations with men in their early thirties to see how they responded to these points.
They diverged on statements 1 -3 depending on personal perspective and experience, but on points 4 – 6 there was unanimity in their views that work as we currently conceive it, at least in the US, is skewed against childrearing – whether it is the man or woman who does this. One person put it eloquently when he said:

Only in America is something so beautiful and critical to our societal health and longevity viewed as an inconvenience and inadvertently discouraged through policy. We mistake efficiency and hours at work with productivity and progress. Women who prioritize children, and fathers who do so too for that matter, should be the rule and not the exception. Many corporations are still operating "business as usual" and thus become irrelevant, unworthy candidates to many of the world's best talent. '

All agree that men should seek, and get, flexible work patterns enabling them to parent to the same level as their partners. This, they felt was hard when much of corporate America is run by 'the ole boys' club'. Turning to self-employment is an option that is hard to carry through on when certain benefits (including medical) are tied to full-time employment. They weren't keen on the notion of anyone 'decelerating' careers but of thinking about careers differently. As one said

It's not about decelerating one's career, it's about accelerating one's LIFE. A desire for professional "domination" (ha, what all young boys think they are going to do… be rich, powerful, prolific…) is an epidemic occurrence of losing touch with what life truly has to offer in totality – professionally and finically, yes, but also relationally, socially, spiritually, educationally, experientially.

Thirty years ago when my children were infants I and my partner were in the same discussion. I wanted to work at least part-time, he wanted his children to have a full-time parent at home and felt that he wouldn't get back into the workforce if he took on this role. It was a very painful and difficult time for all of us as we worked this one through, and did not have any kind of storybook ending. It is very sad to see three decades later so little progress in the world of work and parenting. Do we want in 2042 to still be treading the same ground? What one thing could you do to design organizations to help men and women rear their children with fewer penalties than currently? Your thoughts welcome.