September 20, 2005

· Gender · Sociology

Here’s an irritating piece from the New York Times about how high-achieving women students at elite schools are planning to quit their jobs and have children when they’re a bit older:

Cynthia Liu is precisely the kind of high achiever Yale wants: … So will she join the long tradition of famous Ivy League graduates? Not likely. By the time she is 30, this accomplished 19-year-old expects to be a stay-at-home mom. “My mother’s always told me you can’t be the best career woman and the best mother at the same time,” Ms. Liu said matter-of-factly. “You always have to choose one over the other.” … Many women at the nation’s most elite colleges say they have already decided that they will put aside their careers in favor of raising children. Though some of these students are not planning to have children and some hope to have a family and work full time, many others, like Ms. Liu, say they will happily play a traditional female role, with motherhood their main commitment.

Now, let’s be clear about why the article is annoying. I don’t begrudge these women their choices in the slightest. I hope they make happy lives for themselves. In many ways they get the absolute best deal possible. But as usual, the article is steeped with the standard way of framing the issue, viz, only women have work-family choices. It’s up to them to be “realistic”, while of course the male students do not have any work-family choices at all. The subtext of the piece is the indirect vindication of those crusty old bastards in the 1950s who couldn’t see why they should hire, say, Sandra Day O’Connor because she’d only be taking a place away from a man with a family.

Shannon Flynn, an 18-year-old from Guilford, Conn., who is a freshman at Harvard, says many of her girlfriends do not want to work full time. “Most probably do feel like me, maybe even tending toward wanting to not work at all,” said Ms. Flynn, who plans to work part time after having children, though she is torn because she has worked so hard in school. “Men really aren’t put in that position,” she said. … [Another student says] “I’ll have a career until I have two kids … It doesn’t necessarily matter how far you get. It’s kind of like the experience: I have tried what I wanted to do.”

The focus on women at elite schools makes this tendency even worse. Cynthia and Shannon seem oblivious to the idea that a rather large number of women do have to go out to work, in order to make ends meet for their families. It’s immediately clear—though I think never plainly stated by any of the women themselves—that it’s the comfortable prospect of a very wealthy husband that allows them to plan their lives as they do, without any worrying about how they’ll support themselves and their darling kids when they reach their 30s.

That kind of complacency drives second-wave feminists nuts, because these students are like free-riders. They plan to take the upside of the revolution in women’s participation in elite education, but they are tacitly aware that they don’t have to expose themselves to any of the risk if they don’t want to. I remember the Times had what amounted to a companion piece to this article a while ago: it featured interviews with a lot of women who’d been amongst the first women admitted to the Ivy League, in the early ‘70s. Many of them had decided to quit their careers in the formal economy and raise families, and they spent a lot of time talking about how great it was to have children and work a little bit on the side and live in a nice big house. Which of course it is, assuming that the money is still coming in to keep everyone in good shape. It has to come from somewhere. Because, as Max Sawicky comments in a related vein (about Welfare Reform) today,

Work doesn’t pay a single woman enough to raise children. Never has. Welfare reform is about pushing a woman into the workforce for not much more money and a lot less time with kids, plus a child care bill that somebody has to pay. It’s ridiculous. … There are basically two viable choices for public assistance. One is a rich system of supported work. Wage supplements, government as employer of last resort, subsidized day care and health care. This is expensive but in keeping with the popular animus against the other option. The other option is cash support for people who don’t work, especially single mothers. This is cheaper, but people hate paying able-bodied people who won’t take jobs.

The third option, of course, is to privatize the problem, but in a gender-specific way so that it’s up to women to find the right answer. The students in the article have the widest range of opportunity under the latter option. Again, I emphasize that what’s wrong here is not these choices as such—which many of us would like to be in a position to make—so much as the constant, wilful neglect of anything except that pristine, individual decision and the preferences behind it. On the institutional side you have to ignore all of the ways that work is organized to engineer “work/family tradeoffs” for women but not for men, and much else besides—like the far harsher choices faced by the poorer families whom Max discusses. And on the resources/power side you have to ignore all the things that make it possible in the first place for smart, highly-educated people to cheerily plan on being out of the workforce in ten years having a grand time at home with the children.

A few voices in the article make some of these points in a muted sort of way:

“They are still thinking of this as a private issue; they’re accepting it,” said Laura Wexler, a professor of American studies and women’s and gender studies at Yale. “Women have been given full-time working career opportunities and encouragement with no social changes to support it. “I really believed 25 years ago, … that this would be solved by now.”

Exactly. And they can think of it as a private issue because they know they’ll be marrying right at the top of the income distribution. It’s a nice life if you can get it. You probably worked hard to get it. But it’s not just a matter of your own decisions and preferences.

A secondary theme in the article is the claim, repeated by students and their mothers, that childcare (outside of mothering) is a bad thing:

“I’ve seen the difference between kids who did have their mother stay at home and kids who didn’t, and it’s kind of like an obvious difference when you look at it,” said Ms. Abugo … [A mother of a student said] “I do have this bias that the parents can do it best,” she said. “I see a lot of women in their 30’s who have full-time nannies, and I just question if their kids are getting the best.”

Ack. Perhaps more than any other bit of society, opinions about child-rearing are subject to a quite phenomenal amount of endogeneity. People who avail of daycare are likely to think that kids are sociable, robust little things who need a healthy amount of interaction with other children and, given that people don’t have families with 8 children these days, a good daycare has a lot to offer in that regard. Conversely, people who raise their children by themselves, at home, are likely to think that children need a lot of individualized care and attention—the sort that only a mother can provide.

If they don’t think that at the beginning, as time goes by they are more and more likely to think it because, frankly, who wants to believe they are making bad choices for their children? The thing is, though, that there’s plenty of room to hold these beliefs because of the undeniable fact that there are multiple pathways from childhood to a pretty successful adulthood. How could it be otherwise? I mean, look around you at the sheer variety of people you encounter. Do you have Ms Abugo’s gift of telling which of them had their mother stay at home and which did not? Can you tell, just by looking, how many parents of the day-care-kids spent a lot of time with them versus the ones who did not? Or how many of the stay-at-home moms were cheery centers of activity versus the ones who just plopped the kid in front of the TV? If Ms Abugo has this gift, she should go into show business, making bets with studio audiences about the kind of care they received as children. She could make a good career out of it—except she knows won’t have to.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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