Top professional women find it hard to combine high-flying careers and babies. But family-friendly businesses cannot solve the dilemmaby Pamela Meadows / June 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2002 issue of Prospect Magazine
Baby hunger Sylvia Ann Hewlett (Grove Atlantic, ?10) This book has a misleading title. It is really about choices and the tyranny of time, not hunger. Sylvia Ann Hewlett has discovered that American women earning over $50,000 a year (and to some extent those in Britain and Australia) rarely have children. When they reach their 40s, many of them regret this but find they can no longer conceive. The thesis of this book is first, that women need to understand the terrible mistake they are making by wasting their fertile years earning lots of money; second, that women who plan to have children must put more effort into finding a suitable father in time; and third, that US business needs to be more family friendly. Recently, the British press has been full of articles inspired by this book, charting the decline in women’s fertility after the age of 35. Women are programmed biologically to have babies between the ages of 18 and 25, yet are programmed socially to have them later and later. Inevitably, postponement of childbearing leaves it too late for some to be able to conceive. However, the tone of this book only makes sense when we realise that it is written by a woman who is so obsessed by babies that she had one at the age of 51, although she already had four children. Thus, it fails to consider the possibility that many of the high-flying women who responded to her survey, and who regret not having had children, would have made the same choice given their time again. They do regret not having children, but they would regret the loss of their exhilarating and well-paid careers more. We all mourn for what we have not had. Hewlett is an economist, yet she seems not to have absorbed the central insight of economics which is that every choice that individuals make is constrained (by income, by cost, by time, by taste) and that when choosing between alternatives, people choose the option they prefer. Part of the price of choosing that option-the opportunity cost-is the loss of all the alternatives. And, of course, some women who do have children regret the loss of other options in their lives. Hewlett finds this idea so weird that she only glances briefly at it. Generally, women who regret having children love them as people, but lament the extent to which their time was consumed by child rearing. But it is difficult to express these sentiments openly, since there are real people who are involved, who would be dreadfully hurt if they knew their mothers harboured such emotions. This means that we only ever get one half of the regret picture. Hewlett points out that while a large proportion of women in senior jobs do not have children, most men do. Indeed, she suggests, so great is their love of children, that many such men are on their second or third family. She does not draw the obvious conclusion that these jobs make such demands on their holders’ time and energy that they lead to dysfunctional private lives: for women, this results in lack of a partner and childlessness, but for men, it takes the form of marital instability. Hewlett believes the solution to baby hunger is to lessen the conflict between career success and family life, the source of which she believes is the inflexibility and long hours of US business. She puts forward a package of initiatives, most of which are commonplace in Europe: six months’ paid parental leave, more high-level part-time jobs, better career breaks, extend the right to three months’ paid maternity leave to people in small firms, and provide tax breaks to companies that offer time flexibility to employees. These are good ideas, but will they make a difference? Three things suggest that they will not bring about fundamental changes. First, as the US feminist economist Nancy Folbre has pointed out, Americans see children as rather like pets. In much of Europe they are seen as citizens. (In Britain, there are elements of both traditions.) If children are pets, they are the private responsibility of their owners/parents. If they are citizens, then we all have an interest in their wellbeing. One of the influences on children’s lifetime outcomes is the quality of the parenting and the amount of parental time they receive. If we want well-adjusted children, we need as a society to ensure that parents are in a position to have an input into their children’s upbringing. This is well-recognised in Scandinavia, partly recognised in Britain, but is not on the horizon in the US. Second, we need to recognise that jobs that are incompatible with normal family life are exciting and rewarding. If they were so dreadful, people would do something else. If you have the ability to be a hotshot lawyer, you can also work in other fields with less pressure. But these jobs offer money, status and an adrenaline buzz. If the price is paid in a lack of hours available for another sort of life, then it is one that some women (and men) are prepared to pay. As long as there are enough people willing to work in this way, there will be few companies trying to stop it. Until having a company run by dysfunctional workaholics results in disaster, or it becomes hard to attract and retain staff of the right calibre, employers will not respond with changes in corporate culture, even if the law changes. Third, even in countries where most of Hewlett’s policies are already in place, they do not lead to large numbers of women with children in top corporate jobs. In Sweden, women are concentrated in the public sector, where employment practices are geared to family life, and are rarely found in senior positions in the private sector. Thus, female lawyers, dentists and accountants generally work in the public sector while men in the same occupations work in the private sector. Women who start their careers in the private sector often move to the public sector when they have children. The difference in Sweden is that the pay and status penalty for doing this is small, because the private sector does not offer the same opportunities for high earnings as it does in America. The reality in the US and in Europe is that most women do have jobs and children and make compromises in both spheres. It is right to try to reduce unnecessary incompatibilities between work and family life, but ultimately there are only 24 hours in a day. Finally, Hewlett’s advice about putting more effort into finding a suitable man concentrates on the statistics for the plummeting number in each successive age group. Jane Austen would have recognised her approach. The problem is that too many eligible men are snapped up by women who do not have a college education or high-flying career ambitions. This leaves a desperate group of college-educated women in their 30s and 40s with a dwindling pool of men on which to draw. Her solutions-work harder at it and start younger-are unlikely to help. Whatever happened to fish and bicycles?