July 19, 2006: Features
By Amy Sennett ’06
During my junior year of high school, my mother left home for three months. A corporate litigator, she was trying a case that took her from our home in Milwaukee, Wis., to Greenbelt, Md.; she would call each night as my brother, sister, and I sat around the kitchen table eating dinner with our father. After our meal, we would e-mail our writing assignments to her for proofreading, and she would review the following day’s schedule of soccer practices, piano lessons, and tutoring sessions with my dad.
Strangely, perhaps, I remember that period with pride. I know my mother felt terrible about leaving us, but I was proud to have a mom with a successful professional career. Having a working mom forced me to become more independent. My mother became my definition of success, and I assumed that someday I, too, would be a successful professional and an engaged parent.
At Princeton, however, I met women who did not expect to “have it all.” In my “Ethics and Public Policy” precept, we read Lisa Belkin ’82’s article on “The Opt-Out Revolution.” The piece stirred up a storm of emotion from working and stay-at home mothers when it was published in The New York Times Magazine in 2003. From my perspective, the mothers in the article appeared not to have “opted-out” of the fast track, but rather had been “squeezed off”; the alternative many women most wanted to pursue — having successful careers and being good parents — seemed impossible to them. But most of my classmates seemed willing to accept the assignment, by biology or society, of child-rearing responsibilities to women. The question came up again when I was searching for a thesis topic last fall, and The New York Times published an article claiming that 60 percent of female undergraduates surveyed at Yale planned to cut back on work or quit working entirely when they had children. The article claimed that in contrast to women in previous generations, who had anticipated “fast-track” careers that they scaled back only after experiencing a conflict, this group already had made the decision that careers would take a back seat to child-rearing.
I asked myself why women, particularly those who have invested years of work in advanced degrees and successful careers, are still prepared to make sacrifices that their male counterparts can avoid. At what point do high-achieving women who had competed with men for spots at top colleges and universities begin to downsize their ambition?
I entered Mudd Library last October with all of this in mind as I began work on a senior thesis on the topic. Much to my delight, I came across the thesis of Barbara Zipperman ’75, who had surveyed her male and female classmates about their career and family plans during their senior year. I decided to survey members of the Class of 1975 again to see how their expectations compared with their experiences after graduation, and to survey the Class of 2006, my class, with the same questionnaire.
As Barbara Zipperman approached her graduation from Princeton in the spring of 1975, she expected that women would be “aggressive in pursuit of career, not compromising.” But that path was uncharted. Her thesis, she hoped, would shed light on the future career paths of highly educated women — and help her understand whether most Princeton seniors were as frustrated by the conflicting expectations as she was.
Using a random sample of men and women, Zipperman surveyed 500 classmates (270 responded) and found some striking differences between how men and women perceived their futures. When it came to parenting, 42 percent of the senior women, but only 10 percent of the men, believed that they would have both child-rearing and career responsibilities. Fifty-four percent of the women, but only 26 percent of the men, foresaw a possible conflict between work and family. Nearly three-quarters of the women who anticipated a conflict said they expected to work part-time when their children were growing up, compared to less than one-quarter of the men. Half the men who foresaw the dilemma expected their wives to interrupt their careers. No woman expected her husband to do the same.
Today, 5 percent of the members of the Class of 1975 — most of whom are in their early 50s – say they gave up having a family to pursue their careers, including Zipperman herself: Now an executive at a Hollywood production company, she sought from the beginning a career that would allow her to provide for herself. “In my mind I still wanted to meet someone and marry,” she says of her early days as an attorney, “but you’re probably not going to meet someone leaving the office at 9 p.m.” Though she once considered having children, she ultimately decided against balancing single parenthood and her demanding career.
Eighty percent of the class members are married, and 85 percent have children. Fifty-eight percent of the ’75 women, and 41 percent of the men, say they had experienced work-family conflict since graduating from Princeton. To resolve the dilemma, 58 percent of the women in the class worked part-time when their children were young, compared to 4 percent of the men. Other women say they pursued their careers less aggressively than they had intended, and several speak of their lack of time for anything other than career and family. Nearly half of the ’75 men report that their spouses interrupted their careers to raise children — but none of the women say that about their husbands.
Although men say they felt the conflicting demands of work and family more acutely than they had expected as seniors at Princeton, women continue to be more conscious of — and more responsible for — balancing those demands. Women still tend to face a busy “second shift” of work at home: According to Joan C. Williams, the author of Unbending Gender: Why Work and Family Conflict and What to Do About It, in the United States, women do an average of 80 percent of the child care and two-thirds of the housework — a figure relatively unchanged by a husband’s employment level or salary. It is no wonder, then, that those with financial means increasingly choose to leave the workforce after having children, and the labor-force participation rate for mothers with children under 18 has been declining since 2000.
One ’75 alumna, an attorney, wrote: “If I want to attend an alumni function, I feel compelled to plan it all out, clear it with my daughter’s and my husband’s schedules, and I assume I’ll have to arrange for a kid-sitter. My husband, on the other hand, would just call and leave a message that he’s going golfing.” Said another ’75 woman working in law: “Earlier I thought I could have it all and do it all well. I did have it all and do it all pretty well in retrospect, but not as well or as easily as I anticipated.”
Soon, my classmates and I will face the same decisions. To find out what my classmates are thinking, I used a Web survey to sample all 1,166 students. Fifty-one percent of the class members responded. I learned:
• Though men and women plan to be working in occupations such as medicine, law, business, and teaching in 10 years, women tend to gravitate toward professions with flexible schedules. Men prefer business and law. Nine women (3 percent) and one man plan to be “homemakers” in 10 years.
• Sixty-two percent of the women in the Class of 2006, and 33 percent of the men, anticipate a conflict between work and child rearing. Of those who expected to face the dilemma, 57 percent of the women, and 13 percent of the men, plan to work part-time while their children are growing up.
• Women are significantly more likely to interrupt their careers to have a family. For example, 79 percent of the women and 67 percent of the men say they would temporarily interrupt their careers, and the women are willing to do it for a much longer period of time. Twenty-four percent of the men, and 12 percent of the women, are unwilling to interrupt their careers at all.
• Forty-six percent of the men who foresee a work-family conflict expect their spouses to interrupt their careers to raise the children. Only 5 percent of women expect the same.
• Most of the women who plan to interrupt their careers say they would remain out of the workforce for two years or less; 15 percent expect to remain out of the workforce for more than four years.
• How a student plans to balance work and family is greatly influenced by whether his or her parents are both employed. Having two working parents makes students much less willing to interrupt their own careers. Female classmates, especially, are more likely to plan to remain in the labor force if their own mothers work outside the home. “It’s been very important to me to have a working mother as a role model,” wrote a female history major. “Her salary gives her a sense of self-respect and independence that I greatly admire.”
Women in the class whose mothers took time off or were full-time caregivers are more likely to follow the same route. Laura Haas ’06, an English major, tells me that her mother, a Princeton alumna, stayed home for a time “to see my brother and me grow up. After that,” Haas says, “she was able to follow a path that she wouldn’t have coming out of the traditional college experience and law school. She turned a photography hobby into a passion and then a second career, which is something I am always proud to talk about, given the stigma behind stay-at-home moms. When I think about an ideal for myself, I want the same balance.
“It worries me that there will likely be this four- to eight-year span in which I will be jobless,” says Haas, who is interested in a writing career because she believes it will allow for part-time work or opportunities to work from home. “But some kind of pause is necessary if I want to meet my kids at the bus stop like my mom did.”
I find my female classmates to be realistic about the challenges of combining professional life and motherhood. Their parents’ experiences have made them more aware of the difficulties of “having it all” and most remain committed to work-family balance, desiring neither hyper-ambitious careers nor a lifetime of stay-at-home motherhood.
“I grew up with dads [in the neighborhood] who got up at 5:30 to catch that train and didn’t come home until after dinner, and I worked on Wall Street last summer,” says Molly Fay ’06, a structural engineering major. “That was a lifestyle that absolutely had no appeal to me. ... I basically realized that you had to choose one or the other.” Eschewing the world of financial services, she is instead headed to Kenya with Princeton-in-Africa.
“There is an important distinction between someone who works 9 to 5 Monday through Friday and someone who is a managing director at Goldman Sachs,” says Diane Chang ’06, a Houston native and Woodrow Wilson School major. “My mom goes to work at 10 and comes home at 5, so she is a working mom, but I feel like I see her all the time.”
More likely than men to expect work-family conflicts, the women in my class are prepared to make sacrifices that our male classmates expect to avoid. Both men and women in the class still expect the male partner to be the primary wage earner. “It is weird to me to think that I would be the breadwinner and that I would have that pressure,” says Chang. “I want to be a successful professional, but I want it to be a choice. ... I want us both to be very successful, but I want to know that if I wanted to take time off for two years and spend time with my children, I could.”
For many men in the class, the idea of working long hours and bringing home a big paycheck is the definition of a good father. “I don’t think that most men think about this choice at all because it is assumed that in the future they will need to go out and make the money to support their family,” says Andrew Perlmutter ’06, who deferred law school to work on a documentary film next year. “It plays into the attraction of the i-banking and consulting culture that presents the possibility to go out and make 5 million bucks by the time you are 30.”
Perlmutter says that he is too ambitious to sacrifice professional achievement in order to spend much time raising children. But at the same time, he says, he is “not attracted to someone without passion or drive” — and understands that his wife might feel the same way. Pushed about how he would juggle parental responsibilities, he could only reject the notion that one partner must make serious career sacrifices in order to raise children. “I had a nanny until age 12, and my mom worked,” says Perlmutter. “If my wife wants to work, I have no problem hiring someone to care for our children as long as we are both still playing a significant role in the lives of our children. I don’t think you need to have a stay-at-home parent at all in order to raise healthy children.”
“I think having both people in a relationship work is a good thing if they can,” says Will Skinner ’06, a politics major, who has just begun a job in real estate. “But as a guy, you want to plan to be able to support your family if necessary. It’s a societal expectation.” He assumes that his wife would take some time off after the birth of a child.
My thesis adviser, Nannerl Keohane, the Laurance S. Rockefeller Distinguished Visiting Professor of Public Affairs and the University Center for Human Values, was not very surprised by the number of young men who expected their spouses to interrupt their careers, because it reflects the world in which they grew up. Still, she admits to being “a little disappointed, because I assume Princeton guys have gotten to know their female classmates and think of them as bright and thoughtful women. So it seems odd to me that they would expect that these same women would dedicate themselves unilaterally to taking care of their families.”
Keohane and her husband Robert Keohane, a Woodrow Wilson School professor, are themselves examples of how men and men can balance career and family. “There was a period when each of us thought we were doing more than our share” of household work, says Keohane, a former president of Wellesley and Duke. She and her husband kept a chart to track the time they spent on household tasks, and realized that each was doing work that the other had not realized. “When you looked at the list, we were sharing responsibilities equally,” she says. “It was very healthy, but very unusual.”
Keohane initially worked part-time after her son was born, but found she was “doing as much as anybody and getting paid nothing.” Ultimately, high-quality day care was her best solution. She and her husband helped to develop cooperative day care centers during their time working at other colleges.
Now, Keohane hopes that young women recognize the rewards of juggling career and family. “There are many different ways of doing it and still feeling like you are a successful mother and professional; you don’t have to follow one recipe,” she says. “It is certainly worthwhile to claim for yourself the right to do both — to find ways, with the support of a loving partner and an [understanding] employer, to make this work.”
Resolving the work-family dilemma has huge consequences, which members of the Class of 1975 surely know firsthand but which my classmates and I cannot yet fully grasp. One 2004 study of highly qualified women who had taken breaks in their careers found that 93 percent wanted to return to their careers, but less than three-quarters managed to do so. Among these women, only 40 percent returned to full-time, professional jobs, losing both income and contributions to pensions and Social Security. The economic consequences can be dire for women who eventually divorce, scholars say: Without an income, stay-at-home mothers and their children face a dramatic decline in their standard of living when they become single — according to one estimate, an average of 30 percent.
Yet women who remain in the workforce don’t have it easy, either, facing both the unrelenting demands of work and home. While the vast majority of my classmates hope to have children, the experience of older women suggests that many will go without: According to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of a 2002 Harvard Business Review article titled “Executive Women and the Myth of Having It All,” highly successful career women are more likely than other women to be childless at mid-life. By contrast, the more successful a man is at work, she found, the more likely he is to have a spouse and children.
No trend defines my entire generation of women, and to declare a generationwide revolution ignores the subtlety and sensitivity with which women approach balance in their lives. Yet, together we yearn for new environments at work and at home that would diminish the conflicts experienced by the Class of 1975 and give women and men the opportunity to pursue their passions in both arenas.
“‘Chick lit’ today is all about having it all,” notes English-major Haas, referring to the genre of popular women’s literature. “Graduating from college, having a fabulous career, and all, culminating in marriage. But I really wonder what happens the day after the happy wedding.”
PAW student columnist Amy J. Sennett ’06 is heading to Beijing to teach English on a Princeton-in-Asia fellowship.