Modern Woman: Part One — The Double Promise
A modern woman doesn’t have it all figured out because she’s still in the process of figuring it out. That’s what makes her modern. There are unprecedented pressures on millennial women to succeed on both the home and work fronts.
I must have met her a hundred times.
She didn’t even have time for a haircut because she was so busy; how was she ever going to have time for a kid? Or a partner?
Was this really what she was meant to be doing with her life?
But she had worked hard. She had a great job (on paper).
She was tired, though. The hours were insane.
This wasn’t what she wanted to do forever.
But the money was great, and it was hard to turn down, and what was she even ‘passionate’ about anyway?
She worked in law, media, management consulting, or business, and I met her when I worked for the career change platform Escape the City. We ran evening events for disillusioned corporate professionals dreaming of different lives but not sure where to start.
For me, these years were a crash course in The New World of Work for the knowledge class. I saw that for this group, a job used to be a long-term arrangement whereby you provided skills, and your employer provided compensation for said skills — end of story. But today’s workplace has evolved into much more than just a marketplace.
For millennials, work has almost taken on a spiritual obligation. It has become a place where we are meant to find meaning and redeem not only ourselves but also the world around us.
It’s loud in your mind when you’re haunted by the echoes of Boomer parents: good job! Safe salary! Great pension! While simultaneously taunted by the digital propaganda of global nomad land: life’s short! Go dream! You were born for more than spreadsheets!
Today’s Dream Career has to be authentic. It’s not just about leaving the day job to start a cupcake business. Now, it has to be an organic vegan cupcake conglomerate featured in Vogue using sustainable ingredients and donating part of its profits to food waste charities while challenging the narratives of the traditional cupcake industry.
Privileged millennials have been searching for creative ways to earn a living long before The Great Resignation unfolded. Side hustles were brewing years before the pandemic hit. Tim Ferriss was writing about the 4-hour workweek in 2007 and Chris Guillebeau published The $100 Startup back in 2012.
Ever since millennials started brainstorming ways to swap portfolio management for portfolio careers, companies have been looking for creative ways to keep them engaged. But the future of work discussions need to stretch beyond ‘retention strategies’ and address lingering assumptions on how heterosexual couples will split the domestic load if they start families.
If you want to keep women working for you as they grow into senior leaders, the strategies that attracted them into your organisation aren’t the same ones that will keep them there. And if you’re a woman facing a myriad of decisions over where you direct your career as you start a family, I wrote this piece because it’s a hot topic of discussion among my girlfriends at the moment.
As I talk to girlfriends who are now in their mid-thirties, I keep quoting ‘The Opt-Out Revolution’.
This New York Times Magazine feature was written twenty years ago by Lisa Belkin, who profiled a group of Type A women who were meant to ‘change the world’ for future generations of women. This group had worked hard to earn degrees from Ivy League schools, then went on to build the foundations for glittering careers on Wall Street, Madison Avenue, etc.
“They chose husbands who could keep up with them, not simply support them. They waited to have children because work was too exciting. They put on power suits and marched off to take on the world,” Belkin wrote.
As they hit their prime working years, these women said ‘thanks, but no thanks’ and ‘opted out’ of the rat race to focus on their families, according to Belkin.
I saw this yearning a lot during my time with Escape the City. Regardless of gender, I’d see ‘future leaders’ look up the career ladder and decide they would rather start their own company or move countries or change industries or do anything except inherit their boss’s job, the headaches, and in one case — the stress-induced IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) — that came with it.
While the men I met saw no way out, the women who wanted kids had what they felt was a socially acceptable reason to step away from work. As one of the women interviewed by Belkin admitted: when she became a parent, it gave her the “escape hatch” she wanted from her high-pressure job.
A decade after ‘The Opt-Out Revolution’ came a follow-up piece, ‘The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In’.
The same former mega-achievers shared the journeys they’d been on since leaving their careers. They talked about their varied attempts to rejoin the workforce. The author of this piece, Judith Warner, shared:
“What I heard… were some regrets for what, in an ideal world, might have been — more time with their children combined with some sort of intellectually stimulating, respectably paying, advancement-permitting part-time work…”
In other words, these women had wanted to continue working, but not at the previous pace, which had become unsustainable once they’d become parents. Perhaps it would have been manageable had their spouses been chasing less demanding careers themselves, but that wasn’t the case.
Sociologist Pamela Stone dug deeper into the topic in her 2007 book Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home. What she found about women was this (emphasis added by me):
“Full-time motherhood is what they do WHEN they quit, not WHY they quit.”
Companies assumed that women abandoned their careers due to motherhood. Stone demonstrated that while this was one of the factors, there were other nudges out of the workforce.
Maybe it was the husbands who said ‘it’s your choice, honey’ when it came to career advice. On the surface, this appears supportive, but in reality, this can be the spouse with the higher salary (often male) signalling to the lower-earning partner (often female) that their (less important) career is optional.
This turns the choice into one that the woman must make on her own, instead of it being treated as a joint decision. It can be a signal from the man that he’ll contribute to the domestic load, but is on his own professional trajectory, and shouldn’t be expected to sacrifice his career to shoulder domestic duties.
Or maybe women quit because of bosses who stop seeing them as leaders once they became mothers. A 2015 study by PriceWaterhouseCoopers showed that women enter the world of work brimming with hope and ambition. However, a decade later, they see how the workplace is stuck:
More than a third say they don’t have female role models that resonate with them and only 39 per cent feel they can rise to the very top levels of their current organisation.
If you’re an ambitious millennial woman, maybe (like my girlfriends and I) you’re navigating The Double Promise.
The world of work has mostly been designed and ruled by men and therefore, for the most part, celebrates masculine values (this is especially true in male-dominated industries). If you’ve been ‘lucky’ enough to join in as a woman, you better uphold the implicit promise that comes with that participation: put in the hours, pull your weight, and show your gratitude for the opportunity.
Sure, take on masculine values to keep up with the machismo. But at some point, probably when your biological clock starts yelling, you’ll remember that you’re also meant to uphold the unspoken promise to traditional feminine ideals — have kids, raise kids, take care of the house, your partner, and so on.
Some companies have recognised this and have designed processes to make life easier for working parents. But not every company. In a UK study in 2017, around half of the women polled said having a baby had a negative effect on their careers. Among working mothers, 37 per cent thought they had been discriminated against since having a child.
If you were born in the mid-80s like me and grew up on a cultural diet of Spice Girls feminism and the belief that “you can do anything,” it can be a shock when you hit the working world and see that the adults weren’t lying — but they weren’t exactly telling the truth either.
It’s no wonder that more and more millennial women are creating their own blueprints for what a career can look like, whether or not they intend to have children.