Have things gotten worse for working women?

—Rachel Dempsey

[This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post on September 18, 2013.]

Earlier this week, I was in a meeting with a professor when the issue of women’s advancement in the professional world came up. I was in the process of making some vague, general statement when she suddenly asked: “Have things gotten worse?”

It turned out that she had recently spoken with a student who was worried she wouldn’t be able to get her career off the ground in time to have children. The professor said the young woman’s concern had taken her aback: the student was an undergraduate, and didn’t yet have either children or a career. In her generation, my professor said, women just assumed it would all work out.

To me, though, the concern made perfect sense. From Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to young women to lean in to this recent New Yorker article about why women should think twice before getting an M.B.A., it’s hard for me not to feel a sense of impending doom when I think about the obstacle course-type maneuvering I’ll have to pull off in order to be a successful professional and a successful mother.

The math is simple, even if the choices it leaves me with are not. I’m 26 and I’m still in school. By the time I graduate, I’ll be 28. If I head straight to law practice and stay there, that would give me about seven years to make partner before I’m 35. At that point I could start to think about getting pregnant without having to worry quite so much about being derailed from the fast track. That’s a tight schedule even if everything goes perfectly in both my personal and professional life. And what if I take a clerkship? What if I decide to do public interest and live off fellowships for a few years until I can get a paid permanent job?

A lot of women my age and in my position who want to have children – or even, like me, think maybe they’ll want to someday – have a similar schedule in the back of their minds. I have more than one friend whose mother has hinted that she should think about freezing her eggs. I know the many people who tell young women to plan the timing of their pregnancies carefully mean well. But I resent it.

Not only is it stressful to feel like I’m in a race for success against my own body, but it also reinforces the very gender dynamics that put professional women in such a tough spot. Telling women – and only women – that they need to start planning for their families 10 years in advance assumes the current structure of the workplace as a given and lets men off the hook. Things really will get worse if we keep telling ambitious women about how hard their future will be at the same time that we leave the underlying gender dynamics and cultural expectations that make things so hard unexamined.

I understand why women in the generation before me felt betrayed. They were told they could have everything and then found that they were expected to do everything. But I really hope the best solution to that problem isn’t just to warn young women to gird themselves against the upcoming battle. It’s discouraging, and it risks sidelining women long before they face any concrete challenges. Maybe it’s because I’m young, but I’m still optimistic that we can find an alternative solution in strengthening men’s stake in work-family issues and developing a realistic model of professional commitment. While men may not have the same biological constraints as me, many of them love women who do. It’s not fair to expect young women to deal with the weight of this issue on our own, and it’s frankly unrealistic to expect that we can do so and also compete on equal footing with men.

There’s hope that things are, in fact, getting better. Purely anecdotally, I know a lot of men who are thinking about their career options in terms of work/life balance –perhaps as many as women, although they tend not to frame it strictly as a family issue. We need to actively include these men and others in the conversation, so that we can all aspire not just to triage a deeply embedded conflict between work and family, but rather to live a balanced and coherent life.

Rachel Dempsey is a writer and student at Yale University’s School of Law. With her mother, Professor Joan C. Williams, she is the co-author of the upcoming book What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know (NYU Press, 2014).

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