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Margaret Wente

The untold truth about women and work Add to ...

Six years ago, The New York Times magazine published a ground-breaking cover story called The Opt-Out Revolution. It explored the lives of a group of female Princeton graduates - talented, educated, accomplished beneficiaries of the feminist revolution - who had freely chosen to give up a full-time career path for a life of stay-at-home mothering and occasional work. They hadn't expected to make these choices, but they did.

The piece highlighted the fatal flaw in the feminist assumption - a flaw many of us still embrace. "Women - specifically, educated professional women - were supposed to achieve like men. Once the barriers came down, once the playing field was levelled, they were supposed to march toward the future and take rightful ownership of the universe, or at the very least, ownership of their half," wrote the author, Lisa Belkin.

Not from where I sit. At the office, I'm surrounded by fathers of young kids. They are highly involved with their families. They take parental leave and share the housework. Their wives are as accomplished as they are. But in most cases it's the men who are the primary earners, for now, and probably for years to come. Their wives have stepped back from the career track - not because they must, but because they can.

When I was younger, I, too, assumed that most highly educated women would be like me - drawn to the challenges and rewards of a full-fledged career. I was floored (and a bit cheesed off) when some of them dropped out to have babies and join the PTA; 30 years later, I'm catching up with them. Not a single one regrets her choice, or misses the career she never had.

A large and persuasive body of research shows that it is these choices - not institutional and structural barriers, or lack of day care, or lingering systemic discrimination, or unconscious stereotyping - that explain what I've come to call the 20 per cent ratio. That is still the ratio of women to men in many senior jobs: top management, politics, partnerships in big firms, editors-in-chief of major newspapers. In some areas, the ratio is lower (corporate boards of directors), and in some it's higher (public administration). The common factor is that all of these jobs require long apprenticeships, long hours and hard work over many years. It's not that women aren't up to it. They just have other preferences.

Catherine Hakim, a senior research fellow at the London School of Economics, has been studying gender and work trends for decades. "The most misleading feminist myth is that women are united in their goals and priorities," she wrote in the journal Public Policy Review. "The myth that all or most women would be just as careerist as men, if only they were given the opportunity, has been exploded."

Women's employment, she explains, is polarized among three sharply different groups. The first group is the two-career family, characterized by equal jobs and equal sharing. In the second group, by far the largest, the man is the main breadwinner and the woman is the secondary earner, with primary responsibility for the home. In the third group, the husband works and the wife stays home. This pattern is the same throughout the developed world. "The majority of dual-income couples are not dual-career couples," says Dr. Hakim. She figures that dual-income couples outnumber dual-career couples by at least two to one.

The research flatly contradicts the prevailing notion that part-time jobs (which are mostly held by women) are a bad thing. The truth is that part-time work suits many women's family needs. It debunks the so-called wage gap between the sexes, which results from different work choices, not discrimination. Research also explodes the myth of the "second shift." When the total time that people spend on paid and unpaid work is added up, men and women come out roughly equal. (I know it's hard to believe. The results would probably be different if the research measured time spent worrying.)

When women enter a male profession en masse, they don't become more like men. It's the profession that changes. Take medicine, where gruelling hours have always been the norm. At first, it was simply assumed that women (who now form the majority in medical schools) would practise just like men. They don't. They scale back their hours when they have families, which means we need to train a lot more doctors than we thought we did.

Employment equity laws and family-friendly policies have been essential in breaking down employment barriers to women. But social engineering can only go so far. It can even backfire. Consider Sweden, which is so enlightened that fathers must take mandatory paternity leave whether they want to or not. What is the result? The vast majority of parental leave is still taken by women, who prefer not to share it with the men. Most men use their leave as paid vacation, and women still do most of the childrearing. The sexes are sharply segregated by occupation, with most men working in the private sector and most women in the public sector. The pay gap between men and women is much higher than it is in the United States. Dr. Hakim concludes that if it's equality in the workplace you want, look at countries with greater economic competition.

Job flexibility and work-life balance are undeniably good things. But they don't help women get to the top. Working like hell for years and years gets you to the top. It's puzzling that so many women's advocates seem to think that one thing leads to the other, or that more women will be inclined to work more hours if we make it easier. I don't know how many women "should" be in top jobs, but it's possible that there are about as many there as want to be there. Maybe our granddaughters will make different choices. In the meantime, maybe we should be congratulating ourselves for our success.

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