(WOMENSENEWS)–Over the past couple of months, there’s been a virtual maelstrom of stories about the pain of childless, professional women set off by Sylvia Hewlett’s latest book, “Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children.”
Despite low actual sales, the popular press has picked up the call for professional women to rethink whether their ambitions are compatible with family, especially if they are still young enough to be able to either rethink their career paths or refocus their dating strategies.
All womenâ€“-high-achieving or not–should be able to have it all, to both be a worker and have a family. However, our country does not offer paid family leave or flexible workplace guarantees for most workers, making it difficult for working women to find time for family.
Hewlett Uses High-Achieving Women as Stand-In for All Women
Hewlett’s argument is that “high-achieving” professional women are having more difficulty balancing work and family than is commonly thought, as evidenced by her finding that they are not marrying or having children to the extent that their professional male counterparts are. She concludes that young, ambitious, professionally-minded women must rethink their goals and timelines or they, too, will end up childless and disappointed later in life.
According to Hewlett, high-achieving women, which she defines as those who work full-time and either earn more than $55,000 per year or have a professional degree, have neglected to create time for children. She finds that among high-achieving career women and men between the ages of 28 and 40, the women are far less likely to marry and have children. Only 66 percent of the women are married, compared to 80 percent of the men. Only 40 percent of the women have children, compared to 53 percent of the men.
However, in comparing high-achieving women to high-achieving men, Hewlett is combining the issue of whether employed women can have it all with whether women who are professionally and financially successful can have it all.
If the issue is whether high-achieving women are giving up children for their careers, we need to understand how they compare to other employed women. High-achieving men are more likely than high-achieving women to have children and they always have been. Women tend to “marry up” and low-achieving men are less likely to find a woman to marry.
Further, since many high-achieving women have graduate degrees, they are likely to delay marriage and childbearing until after their education is complete and they are settled into adulthood, which may not be until age 30 or after. Thus, we need to compare high-achieving women who are 35 to 40 to other working women.
Little Difference Exists between High-Achieving and Other Employed Women
Analysis of recent government data confirms that high-achieving women are not dramatically different from their other employed sisters once we examine their marriage and childbearing patterns in their late 30s. By the ages of 36 to 40, high-achieving women are actually slightly more likely to be married and have children than other employed women (49 percent versus 47 percent).
Among women 28 to 35, however, Hewlett is correct: High-achieving women are less likely to have children than other employed women. Among married women 28 to 35, 40 percent of employed women and only 30 percent of high-achieving women have children.
A real difference between high-achieving and other employed women is that high-achievers are less likely than other employed women to have had children outside marriage. Among unmarried women 28 to 35, employed women are nearly three times as likely as high-achieving women to have children. Among unmarried women 36 to 40, high-achieving women are half as likely as other employed women to have children.
The fact that high-achieving women are less likely than high-achieving men to marry and have children is a problem. Hewlett is right to bring this issue to the forefront of our collective consciousness. High-achieving women appear to be looking for partners who are their equals in terms of educational attainment and earnings capacity. While it remains socially acceptable for men to partner with women who have less education or lower earnings, this is less so for women. If high-achieving women continue to prefer equitable pairings while high-achieving men do not, then we have a classic supply and demand problem and high-achieving women will continue to have difficulties finding mates that they find suitable.
High-Achieving Women Face Same Hurdles as All Employed Women
The missing piece of Hewlett’s story is that professional women face many of the same hurdles to balancing work and family as do other employed women. Indeed, professional women may be better able to deal with work-family issues because their higher incomes provide the resources to finance time out of the labor market or find the best child care.
Workplaces in the United States do not provide the flexibility necessary for employeesâ€“-especially younger workers in the start-up phases of their careers-â€“to both move up the job ladder and have time for families. Recent research by Elaine McCrate, associate professor of economics and women’s studies at the University of Vermont, indicates that mothers are the least likely employees to have control over their own work schedules.
This poses costs for all women both in terms of their personal aspirations and for their long-term earnings potential. But it also poses costs for our society. Asking valuable, skilled workers to choose between work and a family means that either the economy loses women who want to work but can’t balance that with their family life, or families lose because there is no one available to nurture them.
Our priority should not be to warn young women that they are not prioritizing correctly, but rather to ensure that employed parents have the flexibility they need to balance work and family.
Heather Boushey is an Economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank. She is co-author of “Hardships in America: The Real Story of Working Families” and has most recently written about the labor market experiences of low-income women.
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