Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Women and Work: Having it All

What is a “high achieving” person? As a member of the legal profession for nearly 30 years, I have witnessed a dramatic shift in the opportunities of women to enter the profession. Perhaps 5 or 10% of law school classes were female in the mid-seventies when I attended. Now the ratio is 50:50. The numbers of judges, including the two occupying the Supreme Court, has increased as well. Women occupy 43% of the associate and senior positions in law firms, and 17% per of the partner positions. While a disparity suggesting gender discrimination exists, the numbers reflect real progress in the equality of opportunity.

During this same time, families have disintegrated, with divorce in CA exceeding 50% of all marriages, and abortions occurring in 1 of 4 pregnancies. The economy, and the drive to “have more” of the “American Dream”, have produced stressed out couples, both working to pay the bills, while children are shuttled to day care and act as “latch key” kids until exhausted parents get home.

Men are asked to be more nurturing and less providing and protective, in the interest of gender equality. Women are asked to work long, grueling hours while their infant children are cared for by nannies or low paid child care center employees. Guilt and separation anxiety become the order of the day.

An article on the Front Page of the New York Times this month states some research findings that anger “high achieving” women of the 70s who have paid the price for their status in the business world today. This article, entitled: “Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood” by Louise Story, collected the responses of young women at Ivy League colleges who stated they were unprepared to sacrifice motherhood and child nurturing in order to pursue high-pressure careers. They concluded that “having it all” was just not realistic or good for children and families.

A legal newspaper I read, the Los Angeles Daily Journal, covered the responses of “40 and 50 something” female attorneys to the N.Y. Times article by Story. These “women’s liberation” women did what they were driven to do, and did it at whatever cost it required: they were determined to be both “supermoms” and “super lawyers”. Now, a younger generation questions their sacrifice. They are naturally defensive. These women point out that large firms hiring top notch women lawyers have created liberal maternity leave policies and flexible hours, permitting the development of both a family and a career. These older women fear these new attitudes will undermine the hard won successes of women in the last decades.

So, who is correct? Is the issue as simplistic as the choice between the docile and demur mother & “little housewife” of the 40s and 50s or the supercharged executive “mom” of the 21st Century? I find it ironic that the persons most arguing for individual freedom of choice become most reactive when increasing numbers of very bright young women decide to exercise that choice differently than an earlier generation. These older women seem to be in denial of the social and relational carnage of the past 3 decades.

The politicians routinely resurrect their calls for “family values” each election cycle, yet where are the family friendly policies that are needed to support the family? Where are the funds and social programs that give mothers and fathers greater flexibility to adjust their hours for their children, and where are the corporate policies that provide “on site” day care so that parents may be in touch with their children throughout the day. Where are the liberal maternity and paternity leave policies that permit parents to be with their newborns during the critical first year of bonding and development? Where are the financial incentives and training needed to bring accessible, top quality child care to desperate parents? Where are the Churches that need to speak out for the protection and integrity of family relationships? Where is the “women’s movement” in seeking the right of mothers to stay with their newborn children during the time needed for mother-child bonding and nurturing?

Until a “high achieving” person is defined in our culture to include the quality of parenting and nurturing, we will not be the “high achieving” nation we are called to be. Until then, each couple will have to “travel to the beat of their own drummer’ to paraphrase Thoreau. A generation of young women appears to be defining differently and for themselves just what is “the good life”.

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