I recently attended a talk for aspiring young journalists where the two female speakers were both senior news editors at a national publication. One of the speakers said quite bluntly to the audience, ‘If you want to have a big family, this is not the job for you. Not with the hours we work.’ Some people may have found what she said offensive. I thought it was refreshingly honest. It is not often that you hear women speaking so plainly about the practicalities of balancing motherhood with a career.
In fact, I think there is a serious dearth of this type of advice, which is sorely needed. It is a reality all women face and struggle with. From contemporary feminism we hear very little on the subject. As a political movement, feminism was one of the main motivating forces behind encouraging ambitious young women to go out and pursue an education and a career on equal terms with men.
In this endeavour, it has been wildly successful. There are more women in work than ever before. Women outperform men in attaining tertiary qualifications, prompting concerns about a new ‘gender gap’ in higher education. Between the ages of 22-29, women even earn more than their male counterparts. But all this progress reverses completely when women enter their 30s and begin having children. Then their earning potential drops off sharply and few make it to senior management roles.
Yet today’s feminists largely seem to concern themselves more with philosophical discussions of gender: playing with conceptual notions of femininity and masculinity, and obsessing over trivialities such as ‘gender pronouns’. All the while ignoring the hard facts of female biology, which cannot be altered no matter how much you manipulate semantics. These rhetorical abstractions are so far from the everyday concerns of most women I know.
I recently had a conversation with a friend who works at a top law firm in the City. She told me that there is a perception amongst the junior staff that getting pregnant can affect your chances of making partner. The female lawyers who do make it that far delay starting a family then fall pregnant immediately afterwards. That is a huge sacrifice – even a gamble – to make.
I don’t think men have it easy either. They are struggling to get ahead as well. Women don’t deserve more help than men in this endeavour, and I don’t think the modern workplace should be designed solely to meet the needs of women. My argument is that because of the fundamental difference in our biology, the way in which men and women approach their career ambitions should be different. The fact is that women need to start thinking a lot further ahead than they do now. And women need to be exposed to a lot more frank talk about the issue from a young age. We should not be reaching the age of 30 completely unprepared. I completely reject the notion that it is ‘institutionalised misogyny’ that prevents women from advancing in their careers. The truth is far less sinister.
The self-described ‘dissident feminist’ Camille Paglia has argued that women need to begin thinking about career and motherhood as early as high school. She is joined in these sentiments by the well-known critic of feminism Danielle Crittenden who has suggested that career-minded women should consider having children much earlier, so they won’t have to abandon their work mid-career in their thirties. That goes against much of current conventional wisdom, but makes good practical sense. I do not know what the perfect solution is or even if there is one, but I do know that candid conversations about motherhood have long been neglected by feminists, much to the detriment of all the progress women have made.