On Tuesday, the New York Times posted this article on women attending elite universities and whose main goal is motherhood.
It’s difficult to say exactly how many women have such a plan. One survey found that 85 out of 138 Yale undergraduate women—over 60%—planned to stop working full time when they started families. The sample size is small and consists only of women at Yale, but the results do still raise questions.
These young women seem to greatly value family life. Those who were interviewed for the article expressed desires reflect the choices of their mothers (or other female role models). I think there’s something to be admired in the fact that these women wish to pass the values of their mothers on to their daughters and that they wish to have an active role in the upbringing of their children.
For many careerwomen, the need to balance work and family and the impossibility of having it all can be frustrating. These young women accept the choice as necessary, and they accept rather than rail at the status quo. One of the female professors at Yale interviewed for this article called these women “realistic.” A Yale survey involving alumnae found that less than 50% of the women in their 40s still worked full time. This younger generation seems, as a group, to want to follow in the previous generation’s footsteps.
Although it is only mentioned in passing, there is also the important question of return on investment (ROI). For these young women, the investment of both time and money is worth it because it will allow them to have fulfilling part time work or to return to work when their children are over. It also allows them the opportunity to meet husbands who will be able to financially support such a choice.
The parents of these women are also important stakeholders. The parents interviewed seem happy enough with (if you’ll permit me to be reductionist) choosing family over career. Of course, these parents also have an interest in seeing their future grandchildren raised in a manner consistent with their own values, so it’s not totally surprising.
Of course, then there are feminists and women’s rights advocates, who did and still do fight a long and difficult battle so that these young women could have such a choice.
Educators make up a final group of stakeholders. In one sense, they are the ultimate payers. It’s their reaction that interests me most, although I suspect they have not yet had the time to react. It appears that there may be a great deal invested in preparing these young women for leadership positions they won’t take. Should these funds be diverted elsewhere? What about those women who do choose (or end up on) ambitious career paths? Is it fair to deny them resources on the chance that they might choose not to fully use their intellectual abilities?
For that matter, is it fair to say that one can’t stay home with one’s children and still develop one’s intellect or become a leader? Is it fair that right now most women can’t have a fulfilling career and devote oneself satisfactorily to one’s family?
I don’t believe that the work is over for those who advocate for greater flexibility in the workplace. Reading this article makes me think that their work is more important than ever—not because I begrudge these women their choices, but because I’d like every person to be able to make a choice that is satisfying and is in keeping with that person’s values.
I can’t see myself ever letting go of ambition. I suspect it’s been drilled permanently into me by 18 years of people telling me I had so much potential to live up to. I really came to hate the word “potential” after a while. Today, I know that I have stakeholders to answer to, and one of them is myself.
There are a few final points I’d like to make about this article.
First, it’s important to remember that this article focuses mostly on Yale, so what is presented may not be generally applicable, perhaps even to other Ivy League Universities.
I also wanted to point out some of the quotes used. There is this one, about the young men in Harvard’s American Family class.
“A lot of the guys were like, ‘I think that’s really great,’ ” Ms. Currie said. “One of the guys was like, ‘I think that’s sexy.’ Staying at home with your children isn’t as polarizing of an issue as I envision it is for women who are in their 30’s now.”
This is one young woman’s explanation of why she wants to stay home with her children:
“Parents have such an influence on their children,” Ms. Ku said. “I want to have that influence. Me!”
There are some other curious choices, and I wonder if there isn’t some rhetorical purpose behind them.
This post refers to:
Story, Louise. “Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood.” New York Times. September 20, 2005.