Work and Motherhood: Still a Hard Balance

Opportunities Are Greater, But Risks Remain

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NEW YORK, MAR. 17, 2001 ( Women are more successful in building careers, even if difficulties still exist.

The Wall Street Journal on March 1 reported on a study it did, looking at 30 influential businesswomen in Europe. It noted that among the top 50 business schools worldwide, the European institutions´ percentage of women students, 26%, was catching up to the U.S. level of 30%.

Yet the number of women executives was limited. Ann-Kristin Achleitner, a banking and finance professor at the European Business School, offered an explanation: «To get into influential positions at big companies you have to have been working for 10 to 15 years — and there are few women over here who have really done that.»

In the United States, women also have difficulties in reaching the top. Business Week magazine in its Nov. 27 issue observed that while 45% of all managerial posts are held by females, only two of the nation´s 500 biggest companies have female chief executive officers: Carly Fiorina at Hewlett-Packard and Andrea Jung of Avon Products.

The World Bank´s Development Indicators for 2000 show a global average of female participation in the work force of 40.5%. The study, however, warns this underestimates the number of women in the labor force, because many work on farms or in family enterprises without pay.

«A very poor bargain»

During the last decades frequent battles have been fought to achieve equality of opportunity for women in the workplace. Many barriers to women have been broken, although the situation varies greatly from country to country.

One issue now under examination is how women can find equilibrium between work and the family. A survey conducted as part of the Wall Street Journal study found that half of the women interviewed said they had enough time with their children and an option to return to work. But another 36% who have children at home feared missing out on advancement while on maternity leave.

These divisions were reflected in a debate in Australian newspapers over how to balance motherhood and work. In the Sydney Morning Herald on Feb. 27, Bettina Arndt argued that «women who trade having children for a career may find they´ve made a very poor bargain.»

Arndt observed that the desire to get ahead at work seems to be a major factor why growing numbers of Western women are remaining childless. The danger in this is that a growing number of women rely on career satisfaction as their major source of lifetime fulfillment. In Arndt´s opinion «this is likely to prove a very risky course.»

Arndt quoted several studies, of men, demonstrating that success at work often does not fulfill their expectations of what constitutes the good life. Arndt also enlisted the support of feminist Betty Friedan. In Friedan´s book «The Fountain of Age,» recent research shows that older women who have combined marriage, motherhood and work demonstrate the highest psychological well-being, significantly greater than women who were neither married nor mothers.

In reply, Dorothy Cook, in The Age newspaper on March 8, argued that there are many reasons for women´s hesitancy about having children — a principal one being that «we live in an anti-child economy of long work hours and high child-care, education and housing costs.»

Even if women´s emotional desires are important, «they are constrained by the reality we see around us.» Today´s world, observed Cook, «is faster, more fragmented, more bewildering, and consumer-driven. Intimate relationships are harder to establish and maintain in the grip of a savage consumer culture that is inherently anti-child and anti-intimacy.»

Another opinion came from Catherine Keenan in the Sydney Morning Herald on March 9. Most women still want children in marriage, Keenan argued, but today marriage and children are being put off until later in life, and relationships often end, either in separation or divorce, before the kids come along. When families break up, it is normally the women who keep the children — and the specter of being a lone mother leads many women to put off having children.

To resolve the problem, Keenan affirmed that «we need workplace conditions designed for the needs of families, not individuals, and men who take more seriously the responsibilities of fatherhood.»

On a personal level, Amber Rust wrote about her experiences for The Sunday Times on March 11. An Oxford graduate, she decided to forsake a career and now, aged 28, has two children. She noted that none of her friends has started a family, preferring to dedicate themselves to work.

Rust observed that having kids first was financially difficult, because she was still paying off her student loans. Moreover, finding a job now with the necessary flexibility to care for children is difficult. She does not regret her decision to start a family and sacrifice her job prospects. But she would like to find a way to «do justice to myself and my education without working long hours in an office.»

In an earlier article, Bettina Arndt argued in favor of more opportunities for part-time work. In the Sydney Morning Herald on Dec. 23, Arndt quoted research by a London School of Economics sociologist, Catherine Hakim. The research showed that while 10% to 30% of women opt for complete dedication to work, an equivalent number leave the work force to dedicate themselves to the family. The rest look for a way to combine the two.

Hakim´s book, «Work-Lifestyle Choices in the 21st Century,» finds that women who wish to combine working with caring for their children are increasing limiting their families to one child, particularly in countries such as the United States and France.

The study points out that at some stages of their lives, when women don´t have children, they might work full time. But when they have children, they might step back completely or go to part-time work.

Ann Crittenden commented in her recent book, «The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued,» that motherhood carries a steep price tag, mostly in lost wages and benefits. Crittenden worked for about 20 years, the last eight of them at The New York Times, before leaving to raise her son. Just looking at lost wages alone, she figures motherhood has cost her between $600,000 and $700,000 for the 15 years she devoted to her son.

Crittenden, according to a Business Week review March 2, is a «committed feminist,» but is disappointed that mainstream feminist organizations still devalue motherhood and a woman´s role in the family. Among the reforms Crittenden supports is a shorter workweek, more generous leave policies, family-friendly tax reform, and universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds.

The arguments over how to reconcile equality, work and the family are complex. But an increasing number of women realize there is a need to fight for equality not only in the workplace, but also in achieving greater recognition of the value of motherhood.

Discrimination occurs not only when women are denied promotions or the ability to enter in certain occupations, but also when they are not able to find a way to remain in the work force part time when they have children, or return to work after taking off a few years to raise a family.

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