I spoke at a Forte Foundation conference this past weekend to a group of female MBA students. This organization seeks to support women in business, and the young women in my audience certainly meant business. They had already figured out how to combine many aspects of life, employing strategies to succeed at work and school while also hitting the gym early in the morning, going to dance classes, cooking, indulging in a 5-hour brunch (yep, that was on a time log — ah, youth!), a Yankees game, and so forth.
So it was interesting for me to contrast this group of very ambitious women with the results of a recent survey of college-educated millennials done by the Zeno Group. This survey found that only 15% of young women aspired to lead a large or prominent organization.* Roughly half (49 percent) said the sacrifices women leaders have to make aren’t worth it, and nine in ten say that women leaders have to make more sacrifices than their male counterparts. Some 76 percent of young women are concerned about their ability to achieve a balance between personal and professional goals.
Looking at those numbers, I had several thoughts. First, I wish that I could personally share the time logs I’ve been collecting from women who earn over $100,000 a year — and have kids at home — with all 1000 women in Zeno’s survey response group. Perhaps there are sacrifices involved in professional success, but if so, they don’t preclude massages, quilting, yoga classes, watching truly awful TV, or even staring at the ceiling fan with a mesmerized baby for an hour, as one woman did. Speaking of which, these logs feature a lot of kid time, especially for women with young children. If you think that having a Big Career involves completely outsourcing childrearing, you should tell that to the woman who’s up at 5:30 a.m. nursing her toddler.
Second, why would the sacrifices women make be greater than those men make? Perhaps this hints at the idea that success is attractive in the marriage market for men but unattractive in women — which isn’t exactly true. Women in the top 15% of earners are more likely to be married than lower-earning women. So maybe it’s getting at the idea that a Big Career involves giving up dandelions and hugs and other little moments. While I don’t buy that a Big Career precludes seeing your family — if you make that a priority — if it did, presumably it would for men and women. The assumption inherent in this idea that women make greater sacrifices is that men don’t care about not seeing their families. I’m not sure that’s the case. There’s just less of a cultural narrative involving overwrought hand-wringing about men’s choices in these matters.
Which brings us to the last point — that 76 percent of young women are concerned about achieving a balance between personal and professional goals. Given the “can’t have it all” narrative that seems to characterize the discussion of women and success, maybe we should be surprised it’s only 76 percent. But as I told the young women in my audience, there is time for whatever matters to you. If there’s time to hit a Yankees game with friends on weekends now, there will be time to take a 7-year-old fishing later. If there’s time to go to a 6:30 yoga class now, there will be time to cuddle and read with an early rising 2-year-old. If you make it a priority to go to a Monday night dance class now, you can later make it a priority to sing in a community chorus with your teenager. In 168 hours, there is lots of space and possibility — if you choose to make the most of it.
*I think this survey confuses a few issues. While it is about women and ambition, it is quite possible to be ambitious and not aspire to lead a large organization. I consider myself quite ambitious, but the nature of my work means most of my projects will involve a small team at most (side note: I turn out to be an INTJ personality type — new learning!). You can change the world (I hope!) without running an empire.
Photo courtesy flickr user Mobile Edge Laptop Cases