A while back, Penelope Trunk wrote that the key to success, for professional women, is having children early, preferably by the age of 25. If you’re part of that demographic, chances are that this statement will have evoked a visceral reaction on your part. It did on mine. On further reflection, I’ve decided that the author was wrong in her assertion … though not for the reasons I had initially thought.

Before I tackle what is likely to be a controversial position, let me clarify some things. It is safe to assume that the target audience for this discussion largely consists of women whose career ambitions are geared to competitive positions in competitive professional fields. In other words, women who will likely be going head-to-head with men, and competing for the big “prizes” in their fields. This is, by no means, intended as a value judgment on women whose career goals are different; it’s just that their playing field and rules of engagement in the workforce will be different. After all, “work-life balance” conveniently covers off a multitude of compromises, some of which bear little resemblance to any balance at all. Generally speaking, if the position you currently hold (or the one to which you aspire) is not incompatible with the possibility of, say, part-time work, flex days, or sabbaticals, then you probably won’t ever have to grapple with the considerations I’m going to address. And that is great news. Sadly, it is not the case for everyone.

Here is the unvarnished truth about corporations: they don’t care about your personal life. They don’t care about how fulfilled you are by your partner, your kids, your hobbies. They care about how much money you can make for them. To the extent that your personal life does not interfere with your revenue-generating potential, they will tolerate its existence. Chances are, though, that they will prefer an employee with a minimum of potential distractions. As women, we have a very significant additional potential for such distraction for one simple reason: child-bearing. Even if we are in a position to delegate some or all of the child-rearing work to others, the prospect of the mere process of bearing a child represents a potential disruption in our professional lives and, by implication, our employers’ revenue streams. The more senior a woman’s position at the time when she decides to have children, the more serious that disruption will usually be. Importantly, in competitive fields, the impact is rarely limited to on-the-clock hours, because work obligations in those fields extend far beyond that – marketing, client management, professional development, you name it – all eating up what is ostensibly your personal time, and now competing with your family obligations. From that perspective, at least, it makes sense to have kids (if so desired) as early in your career as possible,  minimizing the impact on your job in the short-term, as well as the impact on long-term career progression.

There are, on the other hand, a myriad of reasons why having kids early isn’t really a solution to the disadvantages faced by women (or, more accurately, mothers) in high-powered work environments. Ignore for the moment the contingent of women for whom such solution is moot, age not being on their side in this context. Is today’s generation of career-minded 25 year-olds prepared for motherhood? Is it even something on their radar, beyond a vague, “some day” kinds of idea? Probably not – these days, for better or worse, a person’s early twenties are considered a sort of post-adolescence, pre-adulthood experimentation ground incompatible with the prospect of non-delegable parental responsibility. Moreover, many of today’s twenty- and thirty-something women grew up indoctrinated with a contrary message: focus on getting your career started first, then worry about having kids. With most academic careers now lasting well beyond the standard four years of undergrad, the “then” in that equation is deferred by up to a decade or more.

Even if a woman is open to the idea of early motherhood, there are still certain obstacles to overcome. One thing this proposition presupposes is the existence of two-parent families. Young women who end up as single parents are often at a disadvantage in terms of the resources needed to ramp up their careers after baby. It also presupposes that women who do end up marrying and starting families young have spent a not-inconsiderable chunk of their university careers focused on non-academic matters like, well, getting married and starting families. This may not bode well for their academic success, again placing them at a potential disadvantage in the employment market. On the other hand, it does not take into consideration the probability that some of these young marriages may end up failing, causing a whole different set of distractions and set-backs for the women involved. All in all, having kids young is a great career move if you happen to have the luck of meeting your life-long partner at an early age, have good support systems in place, experience no difficulties in conceiving, and are able to time your child-bearing perfectly – neither too early to impact your entry into the workplace, nor too late to impact your career in its emergent phases.

And yet … even those fortunate enough to beat those odds will, in all likelihood, be only marginally better off than their female peers – and still be at a disadvantage as compared to their male ones. The responsibilities of parenthood don’t decrease as kids get older; they just change. In most relationships, the bulk of the child-rearing work – long after the kid is out of diapers – inevitably falls to the woman. Call it sexist or unfair, but in cases where the woman’s earning potential is less than her partner’s, it is at least economically justifiable. But what if it’s the woman who has the greater earning potential? Having her continue to be the primary caregiver, despite potential conflicts with work obligations, becomes a losing proposition in every sense of the word.

Which brings me to what is, in my opinion, the real key to professional success: a stay-at-home spouse. And by that, I mean someone who – whether active in the workforce or not – is prepared to take over most (and, if needed, all) of the responsibilities attendant on having a family. A spouse who is able and willing to pick up the kids’ from school/make their dinner/help them with their homework/drive them to soccer practice on all those occasions when you’re stuck at the office with a client crisis or some other unexpected emergency, be it on a weeknight or weekend or any other inconvenient time. Because, in many professions, the higher you rise, the less you are able to pass the buck in such cases. Once your career comes to a tipping point, having a stay-at-home spouse can be the deciding factor in whether that career trajectory shoots up, or falters and plateaus. Men have little problem with this concept and, in fact, have taken full advantage of its benefits for … ever, really. For women, this concept runs counter to the feminist mantra of “You can do it all!”, which is actually the biggest load of self-defeating BS ever sold to us. We can’t do it all. Men can’t do it all either. No one can. Everyone’s resources are finite. Life demands compromises. A marriage is a partnership whose function, in economic terms, is to maximize the wealth of both partners through their joint efforts. Those efforts, and the spouses’ contributions, will likely be different in nature; ideally, they will be complementary. Two people working harmoniously will, by definition, achieve more than either one of them, alone, might do. Harmony is not easy to achieve, but then again, neither is success.

Of course, one might just as easily say that the real key to success is not having any kids to begin with … but that is a debate for another day.

What do you think is the key to professional success for women with global domination on their minds?

5 Comments on The secret to success?

  1. I think you basically hit it on the nose. If a woman is to have a family and a fulfilling career then she needs to have someone who is willing to work WITH her on this front rather than against her. Sadly, not everyone is fortunate enough to garner this type of support. I work in a male dominated professional field, and I do get what you’re saying here. Do I think I will receive the home front support required for me to hit the big leagues after having kids? Not likely. Is it unfortunate, and a waste of potential? Sure. It is what it is though, and I’m not willing to give up having a family for the sake of a potential income and status.

  2. And that is an entirely valid and reasonable choice. I think it’s the one most (or a lot) of us make, for the reason you articulated. But I wanted to put it out there that the reason so many promising young female professionals seem to “drop out” of the race to the top is not because they suddenly lose their drive, ambition or abilities. And it’s also not necessarily because family is a more important consideration to them than to their male counterparts, to the exclusion of everything else; in other words, not every woman who has children becomes entirely 100% family-oriented (not that there is something wrong with that either). It’s just that, if family is a consideration at all, it requires additional sacrifices for a woman, generally in the professional area.

  3. You’ve noted something that’s important — the person with lesser earnings/earning potential (weight the former more heavily) should be the one that stays home; unless there’s a way that the higher earning spouse can still cash-in (e.g. parental leave top-up). It’s not sexist, but whenever I espouse this truth (presumably because I’m a man), people assume I’m a misogynist, which says something about how feminized our public discourse has become.

    In reality, our society has turned into a misandrist caricature of equality. As a biological Dad, I only get half of the topped-up leave of a bio Mom. Surely we don’t accept people imposing their values about family structures upon us, yet it’s OK to essentially say that I am an inferior caregiver compared to my partner. I understand there are biological differences, but there’s also pregnancy leave (and often associated top-up) available to women that isn’t available to men; this makes apparent how unfair the disparity in postpartum leave is. I pay more for insurance. I’m glad that women are narrowing the gender gap in lucrative fields like medicine and law. Women already dominate many of the cushiest, best-paying fields like teaching and nursing, as well as general government administration.

    As a man, I pay more for every possible type of insurance and will almost certainly die younger. Men are three times as likely to commit suicide.

    Education, geared to female learning styles (by the female-dominated teaching field) has failed an entire generation of young men — disproportionately, guys my age are literally giving up and dropping out of the work force. And, save for the oil patch, traditionally well-paid blue collar jobs are turning into a “blue ghetto”.

    Equality is a wonderful story. Until conscription makes it entirely apparent that “equal or better” is the true goal of postmodern feminism.

    All that said, I don’t think that a career woman should be forced to choose between kids and work success. Nor should a career man. I really believe there’s a diminishing marginal return on staying home with kids as they get older. The answer, to me, is to stay home with each child for their 10 or so months, and then return to work. So as I have kids (presumably over the next decade if I have a lot like I want), my career will probably be inevitably punctuated by parental leaves. But then, after age 35 or so, I’ll again shift my ‘work/life balance’ heavily toward work and focus on gaining the kind of status afforded by a corner office. I’m no longer at the ‘entry-level’ of my work, so even if my trajectory levels off for the next 10 years, focusing on it for two decades after (when the Baby Boomer retirements REALLY kick-in) will probably merit significant progress. If not, I’m still saving a ton of money and working on side gigs. The truth is that younger Moms have healthier kids and, if my kids are all 18 when I’m in my early 50s, I’ll enjoy my retirement (tentatively scheduled for age 55) a lot more. If it’s not apparent from my rambling comment, I tend to agree with the thesis of the author referenced: having kids early and often is a good idea, if you’re able to put the work in after (and are willing to put your kids in daycare or have the lower-earning spouse stay home).

  4. Hmm, there is a lot to digest in that comment, Joe, but the one thing that really caught my eye was your point about education. It’s not something I’ve heard much about (although the numbers clearly show that an increasing majority of uni graduates are women), so I’d be interested to hear what you mean or reference in writing about “[e]ducation, geared to female learning styles … has failed an entire generation of young men”. I don’t mean to sound disbelieving, because I’m genuinely curious, but what are “female learning styles”?

    I have no idea what the goal of postmodern feminism is because there are so many “feminisms” out there nowadays. Sure, some people want to eat their cake and have it too – be treated as an equal while still preserving certain traditional feminine prerogatives. That’s not a concept of feminism to which I aspire. My goal/hope is that the mere fact of being female will have no noticeable, long-term impact on my career, all other things being equal (if you excuse my phrasing).

    But I stand by my original comment that having kids early is really a secondary consideration when it comes to success; if you don’t have a spouse willing to take over the primary care-giver role (stay at home, or not), or are willing to consider off-loading that responsibility on a third party, then it doesn’t make as much of a different WHEN you have the kid.

  5. Success (professional or otherwise) has very personal connotation, in my opinion. Therefore, for all intents and purposes I’d separate the high profile career achievement from success itself. Success has, very often, two faces. The bright one is more often than not very public whilst the dark one may remain quite private. Personal satisfaction may not always be professional succes’ traveling companion.
    The society frequently creates perimeters within which our lives should happen in order to be considered successful. These perimeters are often basis of our judgments as well as aspirations.
    Having said all that, success should/may/is only observed through this multidimensional prism of goals and values very often forced on us. One of the judgments (norms/society perimeters) is our expectation that anyone, even before their 20s, knows exactly who and what they want to be for the rest of their life. So the recipe for “success wedded to career” must sound something like: focus on school, get the kid(s) out of the way, set the career goal, and goooooooooo!
    I think not.
    The person whose life is trenched and aspirations predetermined like that will have lots of fun going through the middle age crisis! …. I think I’ll leave it at that for now.
    I completely agree with you regarding the feminist mantra “You can do it all” – it’s someone’s dream and no one’s reality. Sadly, we live in the times when it’s absolutely acceptable to feed delusions if they are politically correct (aka women have superpowers – “Just a mother…I’m not just a mother…I’m a doctor, teacher, coach, space craft mechanic…etc, etc” – highly delusional poster that has been circulation the internet) and it’s entirely unacceptable to be truthful if the truth is politically incorrect (women who try to meet all the expectation of the society: high profile career, perfect kids, happy husband, great lawn, culinary expertise, perfect body and make up, cheerful/charming/charismatic personality and ability to juggle it all at once … crack sooner or later). No one can do it all! When someone says they do/have/did, it only means that they had a enormous support system (nannies, grandparents, maids, assistants at work, spouse who never complained … and a very sympathetic workplace etc). That’s reality.
    I was twenty when I was thinking about things like this for first time. No, I wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, so I never questioned whether I could have done it all or when to do it all. Instead, I knew that I did not want to do it all!
    Twenty years later, I’m childless by choice, a childfree person living my vision of success. In all honesty, I don’t measure my success by the size of my paycheque but by the professional reputation I’ve built for myself, I don’t measure it by number of windows in my office but by number of people that stop by my office, or meet me for coffee or lunch, I don’t measure it by number of kids I brought into this world but by number of places in this world that I took my mother to. *
    All I’m saying is that twenty years ago I knew what my idea of success was as well as what my limitations were. That small moment of self-awareness enabled me to have the life I always wanted.
    Nevertheless writing all this, I started wondering how many women now in their twenties and thirties want it all because they really want it all and how many want it all because it’s been advertise that it’s easy, fulfilling and not strenuous at all (TV, movies, magazines)?

    [*A/N (My mother is a 70-year old woman who raised two kids, balanced a job and motherhood; lived through a war, a refugee camp, seven years long separation from her children and death of her husband.) Some people choose one, one set, two sets of kids to have, help and support. My husband and I chose to help and support all of our parents. We have been collecting return on that investment for decades. ]