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Quest for balance

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By ROBERT TRIGAUX, Times Business Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 12, 2002


It may be Mother's Day, but motherhood is suddenly bubbling up new controversies and old anxieties in the workplace.

Take influential White House counselor Karen Hughes, who last month said she was moving back to Texas with her husband and 15-year-old son. What message does the departing Hughes, often described as the most powerful woman in Washington, send to other women striving for powerful positions?

What gives with Jane Swift, the first female acting governor of Massachusetts who also gave birth to twins while in office, and her decision in March not to seek re-election in the fall?

And why is economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of the recent and controversial book -- Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children -- urging working women who want kids to find husbands and become mothers when they are young and able, even if it means stepping out of the career fast lane?

Because, she argues, too many women who focus on go-go careers into their late 30s and 40s discover it's socially tough by then to find a suitable mate. And biologically, Hewlett warns, fertility drops quickly after age 35, leaving many older women unable to conceive and foolishly optimistic that high-priced medical technology will help.

The result, Hewlett says, is an "epidemic" of childlessness among professional women and a rather startling finding. Forty-nine percent of women over 40 who earn more than $100,000 a year are childless. That compares with 19 percent of men in the same category.

Did we just time-warp back to the 1950s? What kind of role models are these women in today's dog-eat-dog workplace? After decades of battling glass ceilings and management discrimination, are women calling for a retreat from high-profile and top executive careers?

At first glance, the answer is a qualified yes. For high-achieving women, "having it all" -- a powerful career, a solid marriage and the satisfaction of mothering on-track, happy kids -- remains an elusive goal.

Hughes, 45, decided to exit the White House, where she served as President George W. Bush's close adviser, for complex family reasons. Her son, 15-year-old Robert (whom she home-schooled on the presidential campaign trail), yearned to return to his Texas school pals. Husband Jerry, a lawyer who did not practice in Washington to prevent conflict-of-interest problems, also wanted to return to Austin, and to be closer to his daughter and grandchild.

But from afar, Hughes still plans to remain a close Bush adviser. Just how close she can be from such a distance remains to be seen.

"I see her as a very strong and powerful woman, and clearly not a wimp," Hewlett says. "If she can't handle it, who can?"

In Massachusetts, Swift served as acting governor while her husband handled most of the kid care at home. This apparently did not sit well with the general public. And when a fellow Republican challenged Swift in the upcoming fall election, she opted to throw in the towel.

Swift acknowledged she was an underdog candidate and, in her words, "the time that I set aside for my family was non-negotiable."

* * *

For all the griping over Hewlett's new book, it's hit a national nerve. Creating a Life (which was published with the more desperate-sounding title, Baby Hunger, in the United Kingdom) and its survey of professional women earned the book an April cover story headlined "Babies vs. Career" in Time magazine, a long segment on 60 Minutes, countless radio and TV mentions, as well as coverage galore in newspaper columns like this one.

Hewlett's book is a compelling read. But too many commentators take her premise at face value, mouthing Hewlett's cry that our country's best and brightest women ignore their prime child-bearing years at their own peril.

It's enough to bring back that popular '80s T-shirt emblazoned with a woman thinking, Oh my God, I forgot to have a baby! Only let's update the corporate tone: Oh my God, I left my biological clock at the last board meeting!

To feminists' chagrin, Hewlett's deep attachment to kids and motherhood colors much of Creating a Life. Already the mother of one, she miscarried twins when she was teaching at Barnard College. Later, she was denied tenure because, she was told, she had allowed "motherhood to dilute her focus." Hewlett had her last child, remarkably, at age 51 after enduring intensive, and no doubt very expensive, infertility treatments. Her previous books include The War Against Parents, co-written with Cornel West, and she is the founder of the National Parenting Association.

Still, Hewlett's survey of professional women (and some men) is striking.

The higher women climb in corporate America, her survey found, the less likely they are to be married or have kids. The opposite is true for men.

Among "high-achieving" women (ages 41-55, earning $65,000 and up), only 1 percent had a first child after age 39. Among "ultra-achievers" (earning $100,000 or more), no one had a first child after age 36.

Only 57 percent of high-achieving women working corporate jobs are currently married, compared with 67 percent of women entrepreneurs (with presumably more flexible schedules). Maybe that's a big reason that so many more women than men are starting their own businesses these days.

Only 33 percent of high-achieving African-American women are married and 43 percent have children.

High-earning women continue to work the infamous "second shift" by taking prime responsibility for home and children. And fellas -- here's a sore point -- 40 percent of high-achieving wives feel their husbands create more work for them around the house than they contribute. (Accurate or not, that's a perception that needs some attention, guys.)

Nor does Hewlett ignore a disturbing social implication, spelled out in the book's interview with Harvard Law School professor Mary Ann Glendon, when so few high-achieving women become mothers.

Large numbers of women are now in leadership positions. Almost half of these women leaders (unlike male leaders) are childless. People without children claim less of a stake in our collective future. That suggests it will become harder to pay for our public schools, or even for measures to protect the environment. America's "rampant individualism," Glendon tells Hewlett, is about to get worse.

One person Hewlett briefly profiles in her book is Karen Maguire, 28 (now approaching 30), a University of Chicago and Harvard graduate who worked 72-hour weeks in Paine Webber's municipal securities department in New York. Maguire says she uses "backward mapping" -- starting with what you want and working backward -- to figure out how she can have two or three kids by her early 40s.

That means having her first kid by 35. That means finding a husband, which means taking the time to meet and get to know some guy over a couple of years, she says.

Maguire starts laughing when she counts backwards to accomplish these goals. She says she has no "search" or "relationship maintenance" time -- unless she gets off the fast track. "I go through this exercise and then I think of my job and I start laughing. I mean, it's a joke."

Hewlett even refers to a service in New York called Lifeworks that offers a program to high-achieving women called "Marriage Works." The six-month, 276-hour course teaches busy women age 40-50 how to shed their tough exteriors and become more approachable. The cost: $9,600.

If Hewlett's dire survey results are right, surely most of America's tip-top corporate women must be single (or divorced) and childless? I spot-checked some heavyweights from Fortune magazine's annual survey of the 50 most powerful women in business.

Carly Fiorina, chairman and CEO of Hewlett-Packard, is married with two stepdaughters and a young granddaughter.

Meg Whitman, CEO of eBay, is married with two sons.

Andrea Jung, CEO of Avon Products, has a daughter from a previous marriage.

Hmmm. These may not sound perfect, but these women have managed to create some type of family life outside their careers.

Bottom line for babies vs. careers? There are no easy answers. And Hewlett's advice has its own risks. Rush into a young, unseasoned marriage and parenthood, and divorce could lie ahead.

Friendlier workplace rules would go a long way in easing the crazy balance of work and family. Maybe more high-achieving women wouldn't wait until their 40s, if they thought they could become mothers in their 20s and 30s without risking their careers.

Hey Mom, have a happy Mother's Day, just the same.

-- Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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