Monday, June 25, 2012

Why Do Women Want to "Have It All?"

Last week, former State Department director Anne-Marie Slaughter's Atlantic piece "Why Women Still Can't Have It All" spurred a flurry of internet discussion: there was a nice response on why "having it all" is the wrong thing to be striving for (see the Salon response) amidst many other responses (see the NYT summary and Joanne Wilson's response).  This discussion brings up the valid point that the set of desires of "elite women*" may be unsatisfiable.  The main problem is that the outdated expectation for a woman to pair with a socially "stronger" man does not necessarily create professionally supportive relationships for ambitious women.

The assumption that the man needs to be professionally superior leads to situations in which the woman will spend more time thinking about the family.  A mentor once made the provocative statement that that if I did a startup, I would no longer be able to find a man who I respected.  When I asked why, he said that I am "biologically wired" to look for a "stronger man."  After a fair bit of self-reflection, reading about evolutionary biology, and talking to both men and women, I concluded that this "stronger man" business is based on societal constructs left over from a time when society did not allow women to provide for themselves.  I have encountered quite a few men whom I respect who have also said they are willing to make significant sacrifices towards having a family, including staying home if necessary.  I am not saying that ambitious women can only be with less ambitious men, but they should be aware of the topography of the choice space and the tradeoffs that different choices entail.

Professionally ambitious women must also make a choice about what they want to optimize: it is likely that women seeking both "power coupledom" and supportive relationship will be disappointed.  It seems that part of the desire to be part of a "power couple" is based on expectations from the days when a women did not work and a woman's success was based on how "well" she married.  In those days, ambitious men did not expect to find equally successful women: they looked for a supportive woman.  Women should be able (and allowed by society) to make this choice as well.  Women should realize that while it may be the ideal to find a successful man who is also has the bandwidth to be supportive (professionally, emotionally, etc.), this is unlikely as the selection pool can become quite small.  We can be quite happy, however, if we choose to optimize for one or the other with no illusions about what we are giving up.

It is important for a woman to realize that if she wants a "stronger" man, she should have expectations about the tradeoffs she is making.  This does not mean, however, that all women with careers must make these tradeoffs.  We have been given one view of what it means to "have it all" and it is our responsibility to question and redefine this for ourselves.

My friend Yao inspired this post with the following comment:"I wonder why women always think they must be the ones to give up their career for kids and not their husbands."

* I acknowledge that these discussions are highly heteronormative and have a relatively small target demographic.  Everything I say probably applies only to young, urban, highly-educated, heterosexual American women.


Margo said...

The part of the discussion that has been omitted is that society places certain expectations on men as well, and part of those expectations lead to it frequently being the case that women end up making sacrifices that men do not. In particular, I have known many well-intentioned men who start out saying that, of course, they would make sacrifices for their spouse's career. However, when push comes to shove, they too are at the mercy of societal and peer pressure. If you think it's difficult for a woman to reenter the work force after taking time off to raise kids, I'd claim it's doubly difficult for men, just because it's so extraordinary. So many of these well meaning men ultimately end up pressured into being less willing to make sacrifices than they might have been originally, because it's just too hard to challenge the norms.

And in reference to your apology about the limitation in demographics -- I believe that many of these same issues and struggles arise in homosexual unions as well -- e.g., in power-couple lesbian relationships, the question of who will give birth often leads to gut-wrenching discussions and decisions. The parameters are slightly different, but the issues are just as real and perhaps even less well-supported by society.

Arthur said...

No argument with the main thrust of your piece at all, but is doing a startup a professional pursuit? I see it more as business or commercial, not really [mainly] professional at all.

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