What Millennial Women Say About “Having It All”

The debate over whether women (and by extension) men can ‘have it all’, seamlessly blending family and career without significantly sacrificing either job performance or life satisfaction in either is reaching white hot levels. Fueling the debate are the recent publication of Ann Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” and the nearly simultaneous appointment of Marissa Mayer, who is expecting her first child in October, as Yahoo’s new CEO. The exceptional appointment of Mayer is encouraging. Yet it also appears to reinforce Slaughter’s contention that to balance work and family women must be “superhuman (they don’t sleep), rich (they have help around the clock), or self-employed.

Why Having It All Is So Compelling

The issue is important for both individuals and society as a whole. Corporate values and definitions of success are lagging cultural values, as hours and face-time at work still matter for getting ahead. Only 15% of women and 20% of men say that they could use a flexible work arrangement without jeopardizing career advancement. As a result, the individual choices required of men and women who are not ‘superhuman, rich or self-employed’ when faced with an inflexible workplace can be wrenching. Millennial values are shifting, placing increased importance on life experiences, as a counterweight to material success, status and fame.

As a self-employed Boomer-age woman with kids in college, the issue of balance is less personal for me now. My concern today is mostly for younger women and men for whom these choices still lie ahead. What advice should we offer those who are not ‘superhuman, rich or self-employed’? Is it fair to lead them to believe they can ‘have it all’ in the hope that corporate life will become more accommodating? Or, as Slaughter suggests, is this inspirational approach disingenuous and a disservice?

Millennial Women’s Voices and Choices

In a Forbes guest essay earlier this week, Julie Zeillinger, a 19-year-old undergraduate student at Barnard College, Columbia University, argues the latter. She writes that young women are caught in a dilemma, on the one hand being told they can ‘do anything’ and on the other facing a culture that makes different demands of men than it does of women:

“One of the major goals of the women’s movement was to make it possible for women to do anything men can do – professionally or otherwise. And while our mothers and grandmothers were largely successful in this respect, making it possible for women to pursue the same leadership positions as men, to some extent the problem was only addressed superficially. We addressed laws and policy, but failed to acknowledge or alter the psychological factors that prohibit or encourage women to want to lead and which allow society to embrace female leaders and take them seriously…Ultimately, women equate leadership with perfection in a way that men don’t.”

In November, another Forbes article, “Why Millennial Women Are Burning Out at Work by Age 30,” also received a high level of attention, with over 14,000 Facebook shares and 4,500 tweets. The article affirms Zeillinger’s premise that highly motivated young women are pushing themselves toward perfection — and exhaustion. The result is a higher level of drop-outs due to disillusionment about the ability to ‘have it all.’  As evidence, they cite the following statistic:

“Today, 53% of corporate entry-level jobs are held by women, a percentage that drops to 37% for mid-management roles and 26% for vice presidents and senior managers, according to McKinsey research. Men are twice as likely as women to advance at each career transition stage.”

Carolyn Torres Kelley, a ’07 MBA graduate of Notre Dame, is one of the women who opted out. However, she disagrees with Zeillinger’s argument that women are psychologically blocked from wanting to lead. Instead, Kelley blames corporate attitudes and inflexibility for making it harder for women than for men to succeed. While a rising brand manager at Whirlpool, she made a ‘conscious decision’ to step off the ladder and spend more time with her young daughter and soon-to-be born second child. Her husband, Brian Kelley, also a ’07 Notre Dame MBA, now shoulders a greater share of the breadwinning responsibility. With significant loans to repay for her investment in her education and high ambitions for her career, this was not an easy decision, but one she feels is right and consistent with her personal definition of ‘success.’ Kelley writes:

“Women can be anything they want to be, they just have to make choices, which men actually also have to make.  Unfortunately, the way business works in our society and how we define success often does not allow anyone, man or woman, to be both successful leaders while at the same time dedicating enough time to their families, which should be a priority for anyone. Maintaining a less “successful” career (success as defined by the business world, not by me) that allows me to focus the majority of my time on my children is what I want and what I have chosen for myself.

Looking Ahead

The debate is likely to intensify over the next decade. Currently, just one in four Millennial age women have children. Childless, career-bound or early career Millennial women are more focused on how to pay for college or college debt, find a job, and find happiness in relationships than on work-family balance issues. As they age, they are unlikely to make the same choices as their Boomer and Gen X mothers and older sisters. Research among 1,000 college educated Millennial women conducted by Bentley University shows that while 84% of respondents said that they could identify at least one female leader at their job, only 20% said they want to follow in their footsteps.  We hope the workplaces changes soon so they can make better choices than those who came before.