October 6, 2005

News & Opinion: The Power of the Purse--Is Motherhood the New Career?

By: 800-CEO-READ @ 4:06 PM – Filed under: Marketing & Sales

In late September, the New York Times published a story which highlighted a few college surveys that revealed a shift in the way young women thought about their careers, motherhood and marriage. ("Many Women At Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood," by Louise Story, Sept. 20, 2005)
In light of the work I had done for my book, the story piqued my interest. I too had found some interesting shifts in the way women viewed their traditional roles in society versus the women who had come before them. Those past generations of women had laid the foundation to make it possible for future generations of women to hold virtually any position they wanted in society. This has led to the unparralled economic power of women we see today. Those earlier generations of women, I found in my discussions with authors and professors who have researched the topic, often felt they had to give up or de-prioritize their traditional roles as wife and mother to achieve success in the world of work. Such shifts in society gave rise to the stereotypes of the harried career woman/housewife, the soccer mom who resented her next door neighbor's freedom as a career woman even as the career woman envied the life of the soccer mom. Of course life is far more complicated than stereotypes as we all know.
Now it appears from this Times story as well as an earlier New York Times Magazine piece about the "Opt Out Revolution," that we have a new breed of women who see motherhood as a new career path. These articles focus on women who have decided that juggling a career and family isn't so great and that raising a family should be a top priority. These stories seem to point to a major trend where women drop out of the workforce and raise children--and are giving rise to a new stereotype of the "CEO mom" who apply their knowledge in the workforce or the college classroom to being a mother.
I'm not completely sold on "opting out" or "motherhood as the new career" as a major trend--primarily because of the women these articles and surveys choose to focus on. Most of these surveys look at women either studying or having graduated from Ivy League schools. Access to that kind of education puts these women in an economic class that is likely to allow them to stay at home because their husbands' salaries will be more than enough for the couple and the children to come. Therefore it may be a trend among a minority of women in the top economic classes.
For many women in America and around the world, staying home is simply not an economic possibility. Work is a necessity, not a luxury to choose or not. Two-income families are often critical to a family's survival.
Nor do I think that the surveys themselves really support the idea that's shouted in the headlines. When you read further in many of these stories you see a far more complex and complicated decision-making process going on. A majority of the women say they are thinking about working part-time or taking time off when children are small with plans to go back to work when the children are in school. Others point out that they will decide with their husbands who is going to stay at home with the kids. Two women interviewed for the surveys noted in the Sept. 20 New York Times article said either they or their husband would stay at home depending on whose career was furthest along. Now that's is a major shift--10 years ago a woman's salary likely wouldn't have been large enough, nor her career since as important enough, to merit her husband staying home.
From such surveys, therefore, it's tough to say just what is going on with women and work these days. What I do think is happening, at least from the research in my book, is a growing realization among women is that balance in life--not the constant juggling--is important. Sometimes family will take the top priority and then later a career will become important. I also think women never stopped cherishing and respecting certain traditional roles, being a wife, mother, emotional center of a family. Past generations may have thought they needed to sublimate those roles to the new "modern" roles of career women. Women today, however, do seem to be more comfortable saying they want to a traditional role in life. But...and this is a very big "but," ...that doesn't mean women want to go backward to a time when women's only socially acceptable role was as wife and mother. They want the best of the past and the present. That certainly played out in how DeBeers decided to position its right-hand rings, a case study that is explored in my book. DeBeers' ad campaign..."The Left Hand Rocks the Cradle, the Right Hand Rules the World"...sharply defined the duality of being a woman today. We want the family and the career; the wedding ring someone bought for us and the right hand ring we bought for ourselves.
I suspect that this tug of the past with the push of the present will confound many businesses as they try to understand women today and adapt products to them. I know that these issues of career versus family are likely to spark a lot of debate. I'd love to hear what you think about these issues. Do you think women leaving the workforce is a trend? How do you think your women consumers are reacting to these shifts? Do you think women who have consciously chosen motherhood as their career path will be any different from the mothers of the past? Let me know what you think.