Man Without Qualities

Friday, September 23, 2005

Fancy Women

This New York Times article regarding a Yale University poll in which 60% of the 138 female respondents said that they intend to stop working when they have children, and then to work at most part time once their children are in school, has occasioned lots of commentary from the blogosphere (more here) and the mainstream media, such as this fairly representative, huffy Los Angles Times item:.

[A] new crop of college undergrads seems less interested in the professional stratosphere than in a soft - a cushy - landing. .... These future moms betray a startling combination of naivete and privilege. To plot this kind of future, a woman has to have access to a pool of wealthy potential husbands, she has to stay married at a time when half of marriages end in divorce, and she has to ignore the history of the women's movement. (Homework assignment: research Betty Friedan's motivation for writing "The Feminine Mystique"). It's also helpful if she ignores the following: The number of dual-working couples is on the rise. Ditto, the number of women in the work force. The one number that's dwindling? Households supported by one adult, who in the current fantasy would be the extremely well-paid husband. ... If the undergrads still believe they can beat the odds, they must've slept through statistics. Or worse, they think they're above the fray. They seem to have learned one lesson - "I'm in it for me" - far too well, confusing personal comfort with social progress. .... [E]very step of this retro scenario requires capital, from law school - a popular goal for most of these aspiring if temporary professionals - to the husband with bucks.
I suppose a Yale woman who aspires to earn, say, $1 Billion a year managing other people's money in a hedge fund isn't looking for a "cushy landing" - but should be counted as having kept her sights firmly on "social progress?" Whatever.

Reactions from the left side of the blogosphere are even more ascerbic, including sweeping criticisms of the story's "methodology" as well as that of the survey to accusations that the Times is "colluding" with elite colleges by running such stories. The Times story is pretty clear as to what it is describing - and that is not just a single Yale survey, contrary to much of the criticism. We are invited by some critics on the left to suspect that in the ultra-PC environment of Yale, a disproportionate number of female undergraduates aspiring to non-maternal careers declined to return the survey. Sure. The story has clearly touched a left wing nerve.

Oddly, the commentary focuses on the current aspirations of the undergraduates surveyed, and includes relatively little attention to article's coverage what older female alumni are already doing:
There is, of course, nothing new about women being more likely than men to stay home to rear children.

According to a 2000 survey of Yale alumni from the classes of 1979, 1984, 1989 and 1994, conducted by the Yale Office of Institutional Research, more men from each of those classes than women said that work was their primary activity - a gap that was small among alumni in their 20's but widened as women moved into their prime child-rearing years. Among the alumni surveyed who had reached their 40's, only 56 percent of the women still worked, compared with 90 percent of the men.

A 2005 study of comparable Yale alumni classes found that the pattern had not changed. Among the alumni who had reached their early 40's, just over half said work was their primary activity, compared with 90 percent of the men. Among the women who had reached their late 40's, some said they had returned to work, but the percentage of women working was still far behind the percentage of men.

A 2001 survey of Harvard Business School graduates found that 31 percent of the women from the classes of 1981, 1985 and 1991 who answered the survey worked only part time or on contract, and another 31 percent did not work at all, levels strikingly similar to the percentages of the Yale students interviewed who predicted they would stay at home or work part time in their 30's and 40's.

What seems new is that while many of their mothers expected to have hard-charging careers, then scaled back their professional plans only after having children, the women of this generation expect their careers to take second place to child rearing.
The Harvard Business School survey is particularly interesting. I recently spoke with a woman who graduated from that school in the 1980's who had recently returned from a reunion in Alston. She reported that it appeared that she is now one of only two female members of her "section" (the large HBS classes are broken down into more manageable "sections" - the business school version of "home rooms") who is still really in the work force. She noted that the there seemed to be a fair number of women from her section who claimed to be working "on contracts" or "as consultants" or "part time" - but that many such women were generally believed to be actually not working at all or only on projects that a typical, well-to-do intelligent "stay-at-home-mom" would be expected to do in any event, such as serving unpaid on not-for-profit boards (the Girl Scouts came up) and the like.

One might also ask about the "methodology" of the HBS survey in the sense that it seems likely (at least to me) that women who attended HBS would not quickly return a survey admitting that they were not working. In other words, it seems likely that the HBS survey (and for the same reasons, the Yale alumni surveys) seriously understates the percentage of women HBS (or Yale) graduates who have actually have dropped out of the work force.

Of course, what is key here seems to be that pool of rich husbands. It may be that the number of single-earner, two-parent families is declining. But that's irrelevant to a special population such as the women who attend Yale or fancy professional schools. There's no shortage of men at HBS who are perfectly capable of supporting a "traditional family" with a non-working wife. Divorce? For a great many HBS graduates, 10 years of marriage and career means that 50% of the marital estate leaves quite enough for both spouses to live on quite handsomely for the rest of their lives. Of course, business school isn't the only place to meet rich (or soon-to-be-rich) men. Jack Welch met his second wife Jane Beasley, at the time a mergers-and-acquisitions associate lawyer at Shearman & Sterling, on a blind date arranged by Walter B. Wriston, longtime head of Citicorp who was then a GE director, and wife Kathy (some say Robert Dineen, a senior S&S partner, played the yenta). Jane didn't do so badly on the financial front when that marriage later broke up.

A startling combination of naivete and privilege? Leave it to the lawyers to work out the details.

UPDATE: A thoughtful reader notes:
Interesting take the LA Times has is the quote you post regarding the Yale poll. They see women who want to stay at home and care for their childrenduring the formative years as selfish. I always thought that was true ofwomen who put their careers in front of their children's interest.

Traditionally, mothers have been thought of as paradigms of selflessness with respect to their interest in having and caring for children. But to Karen Stabiner, the LA Times author, Yale women who wish to focus on children are selfish. By the same token, a Yale co-ed contemplating joining, say, Mother Theresa's order of nuns in Calcutta in service of the poor should be castigted in Ms. Stabiner's thinking as desiring a career that's "all about ME."

And Ms. Stabiner and other such left wing critics indeed display an immense capacity for castigation, even loathing - and while they dish it out they're not about to let any foolish notion of consistency haunt their big picture minds. Ms. Stabiner, for example, argues that such maternally-oriented Yale women display "a startling combination of naivete and privilege" because they don't think enough about "numbers" - such as the shrinking number of single-earner/two-parent families, the number of divorces, etc.: "If the undergrads still believe they can beat the odds, they must've slept through statistics," she rails. But Ms. Stabiner also intones:
The choice of law is a little chilling in its practicality: You can't take 10 years off from biomedical research or orthopedic surgery and fit right in when you choose to go back to work, but the law is more of an evergreen profession.
Castigated for ignoring "the numbers" and castigated for having an approach that's chilling in its practicality when they pay attention to the number (10) of years one might practically have to exit the job market. Yes, indeed, Ms. Stabiner and her ilk are not about to give these Yale co-eds and their ilk an even break.

But that's OK. From the looks of the other Yale and HBS surveys noted in the NY Times article but ignored by Ms. Stabiner and most of the other left-wing critics here, Yale co-eds and HBS women don't really give a fig about what Ms. Stabiner and her ilk think, anyway.

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