A few weeks ago, I read a thought provoking Harvard Business Review blog by Sylvia Ann Hewlett of the Center for Work-Life Policy. The title – “Does Female Ambition Require Sacrifice?” – was enough to grab my attention. As I read the blog, I was taken aback by some of the data cited, beginning with 2010 research from the Center for Work-Life Policy indicating that approximately 1/3 of women who begin their careers wanting to climb the corporate ladder no longer have that same ambition when they reach their 40’s. Even more surprising to me was that 41% of women who achieve executive-level positions do so without an “intimate partner” and 40% do not have children.
I’ve had a hard time getting this blog post – and the fundamental question it poses – out of my mind, and recently, I decided to do a bit more digging to try and form my own answer. This digging (and plenty of Google searching), led me to a New York Times article on “Marriage and Women Over 40” which details an interesting trend regarding marriage and college-educated women. As it turns out, women with a college degree have historically been the least likely to marry, but over time, the gap in marriage rates between college-educated and non-college-educated women is closing.
Interestingly, at the same time that marriage rates for college educated women are increasing, data indicates that so are the number of men who are marrying wealthier and more well-educated women. This seems in stark contrast to the stereotype of women looking for their “sugar daddies” and trying to snag an older, wealthier man for marriage. Now, more and more men are looking for a “sugar mama.”
So what does all this mean? And how does it help answer the question of whether female ambition requires sacrifice? To cut to the chase, I’m not sure there is an answer to the question. As a self-described feminist, I have a hard time thinking of women as victims of their circumstances, but I also recognize that as women, we’re forced to make tough choices and often difficult trade-offs to have the lives we want. If I’m honest, I’ll admit that I simply don’t WANT it to be true that success requires sacrifice – especially in this day and age. Too many women have fought and worked too hard and for too long for that still to be the case.
When I consider the data cited above – on marriage and career ambition over 40, and on the trends regarding men marrying wealthier women – I find myself hoping that the answer to Hewlett’s question is “yes – but that is changing.”
I do believe that for women of my mother’s generation, it was much harder than it is today to achieve an executive-level position and do so while married and raising children. Note that I said “harder”, not “impossible.” There are certainly examples of women who have managed to have it all (at least from outside appearances!), including former Ebay CEO Meg Whitman (married with two adult sons), CEO of international media conglomerate Pearson and former CEO of the Economist Group Marjorie Scardino (married with children), and Xerox Corporation Chairman and CEO Anne Mulcahy (married with two children). But the list of these women is not very long. While women make up over half of our country’s workforce, only 12 Fortune 500 companies and 25 Fortune 1000 companies have female Presidents or CEOs.
I think – or at least I hope – that in 10 years’ time we’ll see a different picture as women of my generation reach that point in their careers where an executive-level position is an attainable goal. Thanks to the work of our mothers and grandmothers, we were raised with the expectation that we can – and should – have it all.
I’m trying to have it all right now as the mother of 4 and the Owner of my own company. It’s hard work, and exhausting, but if I thought it wasn’t possible I wouldn’t be putting this much energy into it. And if you told me today that I would have to sacrifice my marriage or family to have a stellar career, I’d give the career up in a heartbeat. But that’s just me. One of the beautiful things about being a woman today is that we can all make our own choices and lead the lives that make us happy and fulfilled. If that choice involves career success but not a husband or children, that’s fine. But so is choosing not to work if that is what makes you happy.
Thank goodness having it all is still an option too, and for those of you out there who, like me, are trying to have it all while losing sleep and gaining a few more gray hairs, I say “Bravo!!!!” (and feel free to email or IM me at 1 am, when I will surely be up working and folding laundry!).