When Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg addressed the graduating class at Barnard this year, she made some interesting observations. The theme of her speech was that “this generationâ€™s central moral problem is gender equality.” One of the things she implored of the graduates was that they not plan their careers with children in mind. She acknowledged that not everyone is going to want to be an executive and that some women will choose to raise children full time, some will choose a balance between work and child-raising and some will go whole hog with the work goals.
She said that any choice is fine, but:
“… until that day, do everything you can to make sure that when that day comes, you even have a choice to make. Because what I have seen most clearly in my 20 years in the workforce is this: Women almost never make one decision to leave the workforce. It doesnâ€™t happen that way. They make small little decisions along the way that eventually lead them there. Maybe itâ€™s the last year of med school when they say, Iâ€™ll take a slightly less interesting specialty because Iâ€™m going to want more balance one day. Maybe itâ€™s the fifth year in a law firm when they say, Iâ€™m not even sure I should go for partner, because I know Iâ€™m going to want kids eventually.”
I found the suggestion fascinating because my own advice is so dramatically different. To be sure, unlike Sandberg, I don’t think that women’s power comes primarily in being a head of state or the head of a company. In fact, I think that women have always held tremendous power in the giving of life and raising of children, in the creation and nurture of home. So I don’t see a power problem when, as she notes, most college graduates are female but few women are heads of state.
But from my perspective, women need to think much more about whether a spouse and children will be part of their future. I remember when my Econ and Gender prof asked us something about our life goals and I responded that I wanted to be a wife, mother, and economist. I mean, some people even snickered. But I’d thought at the time that I wanted to be an academic and that an academic career would work really well with my other goals of having children. Even as I changed my career path, I thought of how important these goals were and how I needed a flexible career that I could dial up or down along with children.
Now I have a career that balances everything quite well. I’m a writer — which is truly a dream job for me. And I also get to stay at home with my children. We have a part-time nanny and my husband is a tremendous help with everything. The only major career decision I made for which I have a twinge of regret was that I chose not to go to law school on account of how I thought that profession wouldn’t match well with children. I assumed I’d be having my children in my 20s just as I was trying to make partner. Of course, I didn’t even get married until I was 32, much less have children. I would have had plenty of time to get things going before I had my children. But, on the other hand, I’d be an attorney and I’m sure I wouldn’t enjoy life as much as I do now.
But I also have friends — many friends — who put precisely no thought into balancing career and family and they complain about the problems it causes all the time. I know stay-at-home mothers who wish they could have held on to part-time work but couldn’t find a job willing to make that arrangement. And I know careerist mothers who are downright miserable about how much they work and how little time they spend with their children. I also know many stay-at-home mothers and career-minded mothers who are perfectly fine with the way things are working out.
The big dividing line I’ve noticed is that the women who did a bit of planning at the front end are far and away the most satisfied with their situation.
One of the things that bothers me about the Sandberg’s speech is the idea that we should denigrate the way women have always balanced their responsibilities so well. That’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Sandberg makes the same error when she tells women to be more like men since men tend not to give credit to others for their work. Women do this horrible thing, she says, of pointing out how other people helped them.
Ridiculous. If it’s true that men hog the credit while women share their success, that’s an area where men should be encouraged to be more honest and women should be praised for the same. I really don’t understand why we’re constantly told we must emulate some of the worst traits of men.
In any case, what do you think? Should women consider how a career might impact a family? Or should they, as Sandberg writes, ignore it until such time as a baby pops out?