Thursday, July 7, 2011

Executive Women and the Myth of Having It All

My one-page summary of the HBR article Executive Women and the Myth of Having It All by Sylvia Ann Hewlett

At midlife, between a third and half of all successful career women in the US do not have children, while the vast majority yearn for them. The author defines it as a “creeping nonchoice” problem: family life and career cannot be had at the same time. For many women, the demands of ambitious careers, the asymmetries of male-female relationships, and the difficulties of bearing children late in life conspire to crowd out the possibility of having children. The author outlines two outcomes her article will produce:
  • Generating workplace policies that recognize the cost of losing high potential women
  • Galvanizing young women to make demands on their partners, employers and policy makers
High achieving men do not have to deal with difficult trade-offs : the more successful a man is, the higher the chances are to find a spouse and become a father, while the opposite is true for women: professional women find it difficult even to get married. Professional men seeking to marry typically reach into a large pool of younger women, while professional women are limited to a shrinking pool of eligible peers. They also face a scarcity of time to spend nurturing relationships due to long working hours (often 13 hours/day). Forgoing the prime years for childbearing is even a greater price to pay, which conflicts with the persistent wage gap between men and women mainly due to penalties women incur when they interrupt their careers to have children. This is partially the fault of the women’s movement in the US, advocating for formal equality with men and as a result cloning the male competitive model. In Europe the focus was on women’s dual burden (family and job), and not the lack of legal rights. Another problem young women are facing is getting to the wrong side of 35 postponing bearing children, where infertility becomes an issue.

We operate in a society where motherhood carries enormous economic penalties (6-13% of earning), but across cultures parents see children as enormously important in providing love and companionship and in warding off loneliness. Thus, we are dealing with several issues: 66% of high-potential women would like to return to full-time jobs, our society cannot afford to have a quarter of the female talent pool forced out of their jobs when they have children, and we need adults at all their income levels to become committed, effective parents. Thus, we need to strive for a society where women come to understand the value of parenthood, quit feeling guilty and are able to demand proudly job adjustments that fit her needs.

The challenge to business is to craft more meaningful work-life policies providing sufficient flexibility (e.g. a time bank of paid parenting leave, restructured retirement plans, career breaks, reduced-hour careers, alumni status for former employees, etc.). Evidence suggests that such policies do pay off.

There are challenges for women as well:
  1. Figure out what you want your life to look like at 45;
  2. Have your first child before 35;
  3. Choose a career that will give you the gift of time; and
  4. Choose a company that will help you achieve work-life balance.

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