A Measured Response To Lean In

I’ve had two good conversations lately with female friends of mine, both with careers. One of them is a high-powered young woman on the fast track, thinking about having children and wondering about the effect on her career. The other is a woman with two elementary age children, working on a graduate degree and looking to get back on a career track – though in a tempered way.

Our conversations boiled down to the same thing: What is rarely discussed in all the conversations about women leaning in or walking out is the home factor.

Yes, women hold themselves back, aren’t good at self-advocating, and underestimate their abilities. But even once you figure out that you’re just as good or better than the men you’re working with … that doesn’t matter so much if you are still the one folding laundry at midnight instead of reading a report. It’s the impossibility of competing with men while you’re holding your household together that leads so many women to opt out, become freelancers or momprenuers — or to take part-time jobs. For people who find happiness on those non-traditional paths, that’s great.

To the extent that those women would rather be winning in a supportive workplace, and to the companies that aren’t benefiting from their skills, this remains a problem.

In just about every household I know, the greater share of the family duties still falls on women. We could spend endless hours talking why, but my thought is simply that when you’re trying to get things done, you fall into the comfortable patterns. Women by training and temprament are usually the more skilled at child care; to teach men to do what we do would take time and energy, which we don’t have.

In any case, some recent research by Mandy O’Neill speaks to how the inequity in home responsibilities holds women back. O’Neill asked why female MBAs end up making less than male MBAs, even after they start out at the same level.

Eight years after graduation, in the 1995 survey — by which time the MBAs’ income ranged from $15,000 to $2 million per year — women had fallen behind men. To see why, O’Neill and O’Reilly dug deeper into the data, which revealed an interesting answer: The number of hours put in at their jobs made all the difference. Quite simply, eight years into their careers, women were working fewer hours than men on average, even when compared with men who had the same number of children.

The research doesn’t oversimplify. Some of the answer probably has to do with the housework factor. Some might have to do with the nature of the organizations – the intense competition of the corporate world might turn some women off. Perhaps, she suggests, it’s a combination of the two: as the number of people at each tier of the corporate hierarchy is winnowed, their capabilities are more and more the same. What starts to matter most, then, are factors such as the hours a person is willing to put in and the willingness to relocate.

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