It looks as if it is just a matter of choice when ‘Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood.’ (New York Times, September 20, 2005) But stories like these, based on anecdote and small, biased samples of elite respondents can have negative and far reaching effects on young women who are set on a different career path. It is not only that these other young women may start to question their own choices, but that the organizations they hope will employ them, may start to abandon the innovative programs they have developed to keep their talent pool of women and create opportunities for them to move into significant leadership roles.
There is another story about women and their career choices. In a national study of 3028 teenage girls (of diverse economic and ethnic backgrounds) conducted by the Simmons School of management and The Committee of 200, the pre-eminent organization for women business leaders, 82% expect to work full time and 97% expect to provide financially for themselves and their families. These expectations were similar to those of the teen boys in the study. This group does not have the seeming luxury of expecting others to provide for them. Similarly, in a study of MBAs at seven business schools only 3% of the women respondents looked to others to provide financially for them. What about the boys at Yale? Do they want to opt out of family responsibilities to return to a sole breadwinner role? Not according to our study of men and women who define themselves equally as breadwinners and parents. Without experience of work place and family realities, the ‘many women at elite colleges’ may be reflecting choices their mothers made more than their own. Lacking a significant number of role models of successful working mothers, like Anne Mulcahey of Xerox, Ann Moore of Time, Andrea Jung at Avon, or Shirley M. Tilghman at Princeton, among many, many others, these ‘many women’ are in danger of closing doors they may find hard to reopen. Women who leave the work force for extended periods of time find it difficult to ramp back in, and if they do, they pay a price in earning power.
The women in our other story cannot manage career and family on their own. Not only, do they look to spouses to share in parenting and breadwinning, they also look to the organizations that employ them, to support their choices. In the past, when women were marginal players in managerial ranks, organizations treated work and personal life issues as ones of individual choice. That is no longer the case. Some of our largest and most successful organizations see advantage in creating innovative programs that enable women and men to manage their work and personal lives over the course of their careers. At Deloitte and Touche, for example, several pilot programs are underway — some to build more flexibility into how and where people work and others, such as ‘Personal Pursuits,’ to help employees who take time out to stay up to date on technology and skills and keep them connected to the firm. At Time Warner, they are piloting novel approaches that enable more people, both women and men, to take better advantage of flexible work arrangements. Investments such as these make sense only if organizations value the talent and contributions of their women and expect them to make increasing contributions over the course of their careers. If these organizations find the gender stereotype persuasive, that ‘many women’ will opt out, not just in the short run, but in the long run, incentives for these kinds of programs will dissipate. And that will mean that women in our other story will find it increasingly difficult to pursue their different career paths. That is why stories about the ‘many women,’ who are not many at all, have consequences beyond their numbers.