Need more proof that women can’t have it all? Check out a new study from the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.
University of Texas researchers found that, as women move up the career ladder, they show more signs of depression. Men, on the other hand, show fewer.
The study zeroes in on women with the ability to hire and fire others and affect their pay: They’re more likely to exhibit lower levels of mental health.
The researchers speculate that the problem is that women exercising power don’t conform to gender stereotypes, producing stress — whereas men wielding power are living up to the world’s understanding of what men should be.
But what if it’s not gender stereotypes that are causing the problem? What if giving women more responsibility at work creates more stress in their lives because of all the responsibilities they already have at home?
It’s not the preferred feminist diagnosis, but it’s still one we should consider seriously.
After all, a recent survey of graduates of Harvard Business School suggests that the crisis women face is not in how others expect them to behave at work, but how they themselves expect to balance work and family over the course of their lifetimes.
The survey of 25,000 HBS grads found that a “large majority of men expected their partners to take primary responsibility for child care.”
Men’s expectations were “met and exceeded,” the authors noted, with more than 70 percent of them finding that their careers indeed took precedence over directly caring for their offspring.
But less than a quarter of the women had expected to end up in one of these “traditional partnerships”; in reality about 40 percent actually did.
And there’s this: Men’s expectations that their partner would have primary responsibility for the children turned out to be almost exactly correct. Among baby-boomer men, for instance, 84 percent expected this arrangement, and 86 percent actually got it.
Among boomer women, though, only half expected to be taking care of the kids — but 72 percent wound up doing so.
Now, the expectations of women and men at Harvard Business School don’t necessarily have to complement each other. The women could go marry men outside of this pool, men who don’t take their careers so seriously. The men could also marry less-professionally-driven women.
But the truth of the matter is that the most educated members of our society do pair up. It’s one of the most profound social changes of the last half-century.
Today, women and men from top colleges and in well-paying professions tend to marry each other. As the age of marriage increases, many see grad school as a more viable dating pool than the undergraduate years. (Yes, I have friends who went to Ivy League business schools with the idea of finding a husband.)
But even if they don’t marry men on the fast track, the HBS women’s expectations still seem unrealistic. Notably, the authors report, “The vast majority of women across racial groups and generations anticipated that their careers would rank equally with those of their partners.”
I’m not even sure that the researchers should have given “equally” as an option. As almost anyone in a two-parent working family will tell you, one person’s career is always going to take priority.
When the babysitter cancels or the kid needs to go to the doctor or a parent is called in for a conference with the teacher, it’s almost always one partner who deals with it.
Switching off is just too complicated, and keeping a ledger of who did it last is a recipe for an unhappy marriage. And while it doesn’t always have to be the woman who’s the backstop when it comes to children, more often than not it’s the woman who wants to be.
Unfortunately, the “equal partnership” has become the gold standard by which women tend to judge both their marriages and their careers — even though the odds are against pulling it off.
That’s why, just like the UT researchers, the author of the Harvard Business School study found that women are less satisfied with their careers.
None of which is to say that women shouldn’t have careers, that employers shouldn’t try to accommodate them when they have young children or that men shouldn’t help with child care.
But the simple fact is this: When we tell women that they can have it all, we’re setting a lot of them up for disappointment.