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Women, men and work in a 'half-changed world'


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 9, 2003

About five years ago, a friend of mine left her job as a partner in a large law firm -- a job she had been dissatisfied with anyway -- to stay home after the birth of a daughter. Her husband, a law professor, suddenly became the couple's sole support.

I have often wondered about this arrangement. Deep down does the husband enjoy the new division of labor? Is it really okay with him that he went from being half a power couple to being the dad in Father Knows Best? Society may accept the choice of a professional woman to shuck it all to spend time with her children, but is this what today's men bargained for?

The women's movement's promise to men was if they scootched over, gave women economic opportunity and offered to take on parenting and household responsibilities, they would, in exchange, be welcomed into the nursery and relieved of the sole burden of supporting a family. Yet, in the real world, women are not so ready to let men off the financial hook or to relinquish their role as primary parent. Women want the choice to leave the work world when motherhood calls (or when work becomes unsatisfying or too demanding) and they want their husbands to be there to pick up the income slack. That choice is rarely seriously offered men -- a double standard that I believe is the reason the last vestiges of employment discrimination exist.

After 30 years of women competing in business, they are still more likely than their male colleagues to treat work as a secondary consideration, seeking to cut down on hours, travel and responsibility after children arrive. In a two-earner family, who is the one who stays home with a sick child? Inevitably employers draw on that experience -- consciously or not -- in hiring and promoting.

Why do you think the most successful women in corporate America tend to be childless? Nearly 50 percent of top corporate women don't have children, compared to 19 percent of men in that category. Childless women rise in the corporate world because they don't have family competing for their attentions. Women with children often choose to leave work or step off the fast track. And don't blame sexism. The men only get to "have it all" by becoming a remote presence in their children's lives -- something women don't want for themselves.

We've all heard the classic grumble of professional women that they need a wife too. But it is a bluff. High-powered women simply don't seek husbands to play that subordinate role.

These conclusions are not just my own observations, but are documented in the book Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Love, Kids & Life in a Half-Changed World by Peggy Orenstein. Starting in 1996, the author spent years talking to college-educated women of various age groups across the country. She uses the term "half-changed world" to describe the way in which women have staked their claim in the workplace while retaining most of the child rearing responsibilities. Orenstein discovered why that is.

"Young women like to talk about an ideal world," writes Orenstein of the myriad twentysomethings she's interviewed. "In an ideal world they could be anything they wanted to be without being limited by sex. . . . When pressed for details about how they imagine child care working on this decidedly nonideal planet, however, women revealed that they expect -- and often even wanted -- the responsibility to fall squarely on themselves." Orenstein offers the case of Abbey Green, then a go-getter at DC Comics in New York who was resisting marriage to her boyfriend who worked there as well. Green admitted somewhat sheepishly that her reluctance was due to his limited earning potential. "Somewhere in my unconscious," says Green, "I have to admit, I thought that when I settled down and had kids, I wouldn't have to work."

In chapter after chapter, Orenstein documents the traditional demands women intend to make and do make on the men in their lives. She says experts have found that "the more conventional a couple's division of labor, the less satisfied they are with themselves, their relationship, and their role as parents." Yet it is women -- educated, professionally successful, and ostensibly liberated women -- who are pushing for this paradigm.

Apparently, what today's women want isn't all that different from what their mothers wanted. Other than having their choices couched in feminist parlance and a flirtatious dalliance with ambition in their 20s, women still want the luxury of relying on their husband's income and having their children call to them -- not their husbands -- for comfort after a nightmare.

Nearly every woman Orenstein spoke with understood that independence and equality in marriage and society comes from generating an income -- and a superior one at that. But those same women, when pushed, admitted to desiring the dependent role. There was a time when the law, patriarchy and entrenched sexism kept women from economic achievement. Now, the greatest enemy to equality is women themselves, and it turns out the gender stuck with the rawest part of the deal is the guys.

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