If you’re a Gen X, Gen Y or a Millennial woman, you’ve grown up being told you can “have it all”. It’s unpopular to suggest anything else. I’ve certainly done my very best to “have it all”.
The truth is, when I was an ambitious 24-year-old girl living in New York working as a News reporter I thought very little of starting a family. My argument was, “What’s the point of my life if my only achievement is bringing another life into the world? Will my daughter also be reduced to a mere reproducer? Who of us will actually live our own life?”
In some ways I was very evolved, in some ways I was very naive. Mostly, I was just a woman in my mid 20’s.
My attitude shifted when my employer at the time was forced to make large cuts in the Newsroom. I saw many of the brilliant, accomplished women that I had looked up to being laid off. These women were at the top of their game professionally, having dedicated their 20’s and 30’s to their career, often at the cost of their personal life. Their careers had fulfilled and consumed them so deeply, they didn’t have the need or the time to focus on the other aspects of their life and were often single and childless.
Suddenly I was forced to reevaluate the life path I was walking. How would I feel if the “work family” I dedicated my childbearing years to one day decided to let me go?
Of course relationships also end and children grow up but the idea of not having a work/life balance suddenly became something I wasn’t willing to sacrifice. It was one of the greatest turning points in my life.
A study and article featured in the Harvard Business Review reveals what I saw with my own eyes: At midlife, between a third and a half of all successful career women in the United States do not have children.
Of course, if your intention is to not have children (which I deeply respect) then this is fine. However, if you do intend to have a family “eventually” here are some facts and suggestions that might wake you up before it’s too late…
The Cold Hard Facts About Executive Women and Children
I’m a huge fan of “leaning in”, I really am. The problem comes the you look at the stats and realize that sometimes it’s also important to stop leaning.
33% of “high achieving” women (business executives, doctors, lawyers, academics, and the like) in the 41-to-55 age bracket are childless—and that figure rises to 42% in corporate America. These women have not chosen to remain childless. The vast majority, in fact, yearn for children. Indeed, some have gone to extraordinary lengths to bring a baby into their lives. They subject themselves to complex medical procedures, shell out tens of thousands of dollars, and derail their careers—mostly to no avail, because these efforts come too late. In the words of one senior manager, the typical high-achieving woman childless at midlife has not made a choice but a “creeping non choice.”
The survey results are featured in Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s brilliant book, Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children.
So let’s look at some of the reasons why these smart, successful women remain childless in spite of desperately wanting them?
Slim Pickings in Partners
Let’s start with the fact that professional women find it challenging even to bemarried—for most, a necessary precondition for childbearing. Only 60% of high-achieving women in the older age group are married, and this figure falls to 57% in corporate America. By contrast, 76% of older men are married, and this figure rises to 83% among ultra-achievers (those earning well over $100,000 pa).
Only 39% of high-achieving men are married to women who are employed full time, and 40% of these spouses earn less than $35,000 a year.
Meanwhile, nine out of ten married women in the high-achieving category have husbands who are employed full time or self-employed, and a quarter are married to men who earn more than $100,000 a year. Clearly, successful women professionals have slim pickings in the marriage department—particularly as they age. Professional men seeking to marry typically reach into a large pool of younger women, while professional women are limited to a shrinking pool of eligible peers.
According to U. S. Census Bureau data, at age 28 there are four college-educated, single men for every three college-educated, single women. A decade later, the situation is radically changed. At age 38, there is one man for every three women.
No Time For Love
Think of what a 55-hour week means in terms of work-life balance. If you assume an hour lunch and a 45-minute round-trip commute (the national average), the workday stretches to almost 13 hours. Even without “extras” (out-of-town trips, client dinners, work functions), this kind of schedule makes it extremely difficult for any professional to maintain a relationship.
Their “Other” Job At Home
The problem with the notion that American women should be able to successfully clone the male competitive model is that husbands have not picked up a significant share of women’s traditional responsibilities on the home front. Even high-achieving women who are married continue to carry the lion’s share of domestic responsibilities. (See the exhibit “Primary Child Care and Household Responsibilities.”) Only 9% of their husbands assume primary responsibility for meal preparation, 10% for the laundry, and 5% for cleaning the house. When it comes to children, husbands don’t do much better. Only 9% of them take time off from work when a child is sick, 9% take the lead in helping children with homework, and 3% organize activities such as play dates and summer camp.
Primary Child Care and Household Responsibilities High-achieving Men and Women Source: National Parenting Association
Yes, these percentages have grown over the years—but not much. At the end of the day, the division of labor at home boils down to one startling fact: 43% of the older, high-achieving women and 37% of the younger, high-achieving women feel that their husbands actually create more household work for them than they contribute. (Thirty-nine percent of ultra-achieving women also feel this way, despite the fact that half of them are married to men who earn less than they do.)
A 40-year-old woman treated for infertility has a 25 percent chance of achieving pregnancy using her own eggs. By age 43 that number drops to 10 percent, and by 44 it becomes 1.6 percent.
Society Has Changed, Biology Has Not
Media hype about advances in reproductive science giving women the illusion that they can delay childbearing until their careers are well established. My survey tells us that 89% of young, high-achieving women believe that they will be able to get pregnant deep into their 40s. But sadly, new reproductive technologies have not solved fertility problems for older women.
According to the respected medical journal Fertility and Sterility, 40-year-old women treated for infertility have a 25 percent chance of achieving pregnancy using their own eggs. By age 43 that number drops to 10 percent, and by 44 it becomes 1.6 percent.
The Delusions of a Younger Generation
Young women are delaying getting married and having children even longer because they don’t feel a sense of biological urgency. The hype around the miracle babies of high-tech reproduction is falling on eager ears.
We Need Policy Change
The first challenge is to employers, to craft more meaningful work-life policies. Professional women who want both family and career know that conventional benefit packages are insufficient. These women need reduced-hour jobs and careers that can be interrupted, neither of which is readily available yet. And more than anything, they need to be able to partake of such benefits without suffering long-term damage to their careers.