2002 - Women – having it all
Social attitudes have changed
since I was married towards the end of the 1970s.
At the time my wife had a promising management
job in the health service. She earned far more
than I did.
It did not matter much to me
that she was the main breadwinner but I knew I
would have to improve my earnings because my wife
wanted children - we both did. At some stage after
starting a family she stepped off the career ladder
to devote more time to the children. When all
the children had started school she thought about
re-entering her career but there was no way back
at her former level.
As Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder
of the National Parenting Association in New York,
notes in April's Harvard Business Review, there
are plenty of jumping-off points in a career but
far fewer re-entry points, particularly for professional
women who would like a break in order to start
The result today is that many
women in their twenties and early thirties are
choosing career over family in the belief they
can delay child-rearing to a stage where their
careers have become more established. But this
decision to nurture the career rather than children
is rebounding for thousands of women executives,
according to Ms Hewlett, who says that in the
US today a third of professional women in the
41 to 55 age bracket are childless.
Many are childless not by choice
but because of what one manager, quoted by Ms
Hewlett, calls a "creeping non-choice".
They put off finding a partner and having children
for so long that childbearing passes them by.
Ms Hewlett surveyed more than
a thousand high-achieving women . She expected
the childless careerists to be positive about
their choices but found that many were experiencing
a sense of loss and regret, wishing they had found
time for families.
Now a younger generation of women
executives, she writes, are entering the jobs
market, planning on "having it all ".
One 29-year-old woman she interviewed believed
she could wait another 14 or 15 years before she
had a baby. In the meantime she planned to get
an MBA; and planned to have a family after the
age of 40, in the mistaken belief that "this
new reproductive technology guarantees that you
can have a baby until 45".
Hewlett has highlighted both
a serious social development and, potentially,
an economic issue given the number of highly qualified
professional women who do decide to have families,
then find there is no way back into their high-flying
Long working hours in the US
have exacerbated the problem, leaving few opportunities
for women to carve out the time they need for
raising a family. The high achievers in Ms Hewlett's
study called for more "work/life" policies
such as time banks of paid parenting leave, restructured
retirement plans that eliminate penalties for
career interruptions, longer-term career breaks
guaranteeing a job to return to and reduced working
The problem with some of these
policies is that they tend to underpin an obsession
with advancement and salary increases. Where is
the real balance? Why does the career escalator
become all-consuming? Why is "having it all"
It is not just women who are
dissatisfied with the growing demands of their
jobs. A report published this week by the UK's
Economic and Social Research Council* revealed
a big increase in job dissatisfaction and stress
across the UK workforce between 1992 and 2000.
The report blames longer working
hours, particularly among professional men, for
much of the increase. "The disgruntled manager
has joined the disgruntled manual worker, at least
in complaints about the long hours’ culture,"
says Robert Taylor, the report's author.
But people appear to be doing
little to change the way they work. Mr Taylor
has highlighted the robustness of full-time continuous
working in the UK labour market. Job tenure has
risen, fewer people are working from home, many
people still look for promotion prospects and
few workers feel insecure about their jobs, says
"There is much greater continuity
than change in our world of work," says Mr
Taylor. Yet elsewhere in the study he points to
a significant shift in the use of information
technology and argues that "Britain, like
other advanced and increasingly post-industrial
societies, is going through a period of profound
transformation at work". These findings of
significant internal change on the one hand and
the enduring pattern of the full-time job on the
other indicate that social pressure for change
could be building inside the job market.
The increase in dissatisfaction
and a decrease in workplace loyalty suggests that
many people are feeling trapped in their jobs.
If this is the case, people may need to confront
their discontent. Juliet Schor, an employment
academic, found in research she carried out in
the US seven years ago that a third of those questioned
in a nationwide poll would have accepted a 20
per cent reduction in their household income in
return for fewer hours. Would they do so today?
At the same time she noted that
expectations tended to increase with income, creating
habitual spending and a strengthening work-spend-work
cycle that became difficult to break. Is this
what has happened to high- achieving professional
women in the US? Have they become addicted to
their careers? At the same time, is this what
is happening across the UK workplace? Have people
become so attached to their careers that they
will work ever longer hours, growing ever more
dissatisfied, in order to feed a habit?
This might explain the apparent
paradox in the findings of the ESRC study. People
are not happy about the increasing demands of
the workplace. But they are prepared to endure
the pain in order to increase wealth and status.
They may like the idea of alternative forms of
working but they consider the financial penalties
and retraining implications in abandoning their
full time jobs simply too onerous.
When women experience these sentiments
at the very stage when they would otherwise be
contemplating motherhood, we could be looking
at a far more serious and ultimately destructive
*Britain's World of Work
- Myths and Realities by Robert Taylor, www.esrc.ac.uk
as a pdf file