It’s typical for a study of women in the workplace; there’s always evidence of women succeeding, but in terms of overall numbers, women lag behind. This frustrates feminists who long for women to equal men in terms of total professional prestige. They have numerous explanations for why women remain behind — including sexist workplaces and lazy husbands who pigeonhole wives into keeping house and tending children.
I expected the mother and daughter team, Mary Ann Mason and Eve Mason Ekman, to offer this typical feminist fare in Mothers on the Fast Track: How a New Generation Can Balance Family and Careers
. Yet their book, surprisingly, accepted a central premise that’s rejected by much of the sisterhood: most women want to have children, and spend time with those children when they are young. This reality — women’s desire for children and hands-on childrearing — is at the root of why women have failed to catch up to men in most prestigious professions.
As Mason and Ekman detail, the “make-or-break years” for careers (the thirties, which tend to determine if a lawyer becomes partner or a professor gets tenure) coincide with prime childbearing years, particularly for well-educated women, who tend to get married and start families late. As a result, women face painful choices, which sideline many, and thin the ranks of those marching up the professional ladder.
While discussing the “motherhood problem,” Mason and Ekman carefully state that “children are a wonder and a blessing, not a problem.” This might seem an unnecessary acknowledgment to those unfamiliar with other feminist writing, but it’s refreshing after books such as Linda Hirshman’s Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of The World. Hirshman’s condescending nod to motherhood (she instructs women, “Have a baby. Just don’t have two”) is buried by her disdain for women who stay home with children, and conclusion that even a mediocre career is better than wasting your life raising children.
Hirshman’s brand of feminism doesn’t resonant with mothers, and Mason and Ekman know this. They aren’t attempting to convince women to abandon family for the workplace, but to identify what’s really going on, so that women can better navigate their own career paths.
They dismiss the narratives commonly offered by the media, that women are either “relentlessly rising to equal representation in top positions” or “dropping out at a faster rate than they can succeed,” and offer an alternative picture: “…highly educated women rarely leave their chosen profession entirely. Instead they become caught in a “second tier” within or allied with their profession where they take breaks for family needs but return to work, sometimes on a reduced schedule but frequently full-time, until retirement.” They offer advice to women who want to remain on the “fast track” career-wise while raising families, and discuss how workplaces can become more accommodating, by providing alternative fast tracks and “on-ramps” for those who take time off.