The Loneliness of the High-Powered Woman

By Catherine Arnst


Professional Women and the Quest for Children

By Sylvia Ann Hewlett

Talk Miramax 334pp $22

For six months, I have been reading The New York Times's "Portraits in Grief"-- heart-rending profiles of the people who died on September 11--and I've noticed a pattern: Most of the men killed in the attack on the World Trade Center, particularly those in their 30s and 40s who worked in the financial industry, left wives and children. More often than not, however, their female colleagues were single and/or childless and were lauded as loving aunts and friends.

The probable reasons for this gender dichotomy are detailed in the latest in a long line of books about women, work, and family: Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children by economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett. This is not just another polemic about how hard it is for women to "have it all." Hewlett, the author of several books on work and family, gives a nuanced picture of what life is like in the U.S. for career women, based on extensive research. The heart of the book is a national survey of the parental and marital status of 1,168 high-achieving professional women, a further 479 women with advanced degrees who've dropped out of the workforce, and 472 high-achieving men, all between 28 and 55.

This is the study that earned Hewlett's book a cover story in Time magazine, a lengthy segment on 60 Minutes, and countless radio, TV, and newspaper mentions. All have focused on the headline-grabbing finding that 49% of women over 40 who earn more than $100,000 a year are childless. That compares with 19% of men in the same category. And lest you assume that these women chose the life they're living, only 14% said they had not wanted children.

So what happened? There are few dispassionate responses to that question, and lots of people will be unshakable in their own views on the subject, whether or not they read the book. Based on a lot of the press commentary, it seems that one popular assumption is that most of these women cared more about their careers than about marriage and children, and now they are paying the price.

But Hewlett reveals a more uncomfortable reality, one that is not getting much attention from the commentators who see this as strictly a woman's problem, or fault. A primary reason so many career women don't have children is that they don't have spouses. Only 57% of the high-achieving women over 40 in corporate jobs are married, compared with 83% of male achievers. Overall, high-achieving women either marry early or not at all. Just 10% of the women surveyed got married for the first time after age 30, and 1% after age 35.

One woman interviewed, an associate in the municipal-securities department at UBS Paine Webber Inc., relates how those statistics play out in her office. "Half of the male associates in my group...are already married with children. And in all cases they have stay-at-home wives. In contrast, most of the female associates are single. Only two of them are married, and neither have children." Further up the career ladder the male-female divide becomes even more marked, she says. The men are all married with kids, while the two fortysomething executive women are both divorced and childless.

It seems that boys don't make passes at girls who get MBAs. Interview after interview features women who, as they became more successful, were rejected by a man, or found it difficult to get a date in the first place, or ended up with men who either didn't want children (often because they already had kids by their discarded first wives), or saw no reason to "rush" into parenthood. As one practical woman acknowledges: "The hard fact is that most successful men are not interested in acquiring a peer as a partner."

Hewlett does a good job of laying out the problems facing professional women, and her data are brought vividly to life by the many interviews she did with women, and some men, who are grappling with these issues. She devotes a heartbreaking chapter to the problem of infertility and the many women who do not want to believe that the odds are firmly against successfully giving birth once they're past the age of 40. She also shows how hostile the corporate world is to family life, regardless of your sex. Longer and longer workweeks for the managerial classes make it tough for anyone to spend time with children--although, as she notes, at least men with stay-at-home wives get to have them.

Where Hewlett falls down is in her proffered solutions. She wants women while still in their early 20s to construct a plan for getting married and having kids, just as they do for their careers. But life has a nasty way of derailing plans--and a marriage takes two.

So here's a thought: How about viewing this as a male rather than a female problem? Creating a Life could be assigned to all men in graduate programs. Classes could be set up to encourage men to marry women who are their professional equals. CEOs could start changing a corporate culture that seems to have been designed by and for men not eager to spend time with their families. And perhaps we all could recognize that, since children are the future of society, it might be worthwhile to reconcile their needs with the demands of the workplace. Imagine.

Associate Editor Arnst covers science.

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