While undergraduate ratios of women to men continue at about 60 to 40 and close to half or more of the students in professional graduate programs (medicine, law, business) are women, less than 20 percent of partners in law firms are women. The same representation exists in other professional arenas — tenure-track professors, heads of medical practices, members of Congress, corporate executives and CEOs of businesses. In spite of attempts by second-wave feminists to eliminate gender discrimination, there remain significant disparities that are the subject of attention by the nation’s major newspapers and journals.
A couple of years ago, The New York Times featured a front page article by Louise Story about graduates of elite universities putting aside their careers to return home to raise their children. While Maureen Dowd called these dropouts a “pampered class of females,” The American Prospect answered with a lengthy article by Linda Hirshman, who reported that women can handle positions of power, influence and leadership only at the sacrifice of their husband, children and a normal, well-run home life. Hirshman argued that the real “glass ceiling” is at home.
A year later, Judith Warner wrote in The New York Times that in American homes the wife and mother still does 70 percent of the household chores. Other analysts agree: it is virtually impossible for a well-qualified woman to capitalize on her workplace opportunities and also have a happy marriage and rear well-adjusted, happy children. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an economist and author, found that while over half of career women were childless, and slightly less than half of female corporate executives earning over $100,000 were childless, less than 20 percent of male corporate executives were childless.
While many analysts lament women’s so-called “forced” choices, studies indicate that more and more of today’s professionals are unwilling to make the kind of trade-offs that previous generations made. In fact, both male and female professionals today rate personal and family goals higher than career goals. These findings indicate a profound shift of attitude in the workforce. Further, they reveal a partnership among parents that was lacking in previous generations where all the family efforts were concentrated on the husband/father’s career. The Los Angeles Times reported that husband/fathers today are helping around the house much more than a decade ago (34 percent compared to 24 percent).
In addition, many corporations now are willing to adjust to a talented, well-trained woman’s needs in order to keep her on the roster. At Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC), 10 percent of the firm’s female partners are on a part-time schedule. Further, officials at some firms insist that stepping off the fast track does not mean career suicide. Going part-time, according to career counselors, “might slow your progress, but it won’t prohibit you” from climbing the career ladder.
Some women choose to complete graduate degrees or learn specific skills while their children are young so that they are better prepared to re-enter the workplace when their children are older. Others choose to become entrepreneurs so that they can be their own boss and set their own hours; women-owned businesses grew by 14 percent from 1997 to 2002 (compared to a seven percent growth in U.S. businesses overall). Perhaps more startling is the fact that these women-owned businesses are growing enough to increase their hiring by 30 percent (compared to other businesses at 18 percent nationwide). Also surprising is that in more than a quarter of two-income households, the wife is now the primary breadwinner.
These individual and/or economic factors, though, apparently have little to do, ultimately, with the success of a woman’s choice. The Heritage Foundation’s Family Fact 8219 reveals a surprising key to a woman’s happiness. A wife’s career success pales in comparison to a husband’s attitudes in breaking the glass ceiling of home. A husband’s beliefs about family, the value of marriage, desire for children and respect for traditional gender roles determines whether a wife reports happiness with the love and affection of her husband. This family fact may reveal more about the career choices being made by today’s well-educated women than all the statistics and workplace data. In the final analysis, perhaps breaking the ceiling at home is more important to women than breaking the corporate ceilings.