The Lofty Aspirations of Millennial Women

April 18, 2013

While reading a recent article about the tradeoff between pursuing a “creative” career and earning real money, this jumped out at me: 

[Economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett] and her collaborators at the Center for Talent Innovation studied the motivations of men and women at work and found that while men’s primary incentives are relatively simple—money and power—women are motivated by seven discrete factors. “It’s not just time for family. Women want meaning and purpose in their work. They value great colleagues. They also like to give back to society in terms of the work they do, some healing of the planet, and they want flexibility, which is not the same as family stuff—it’s so that they can have a life,” said Hewlett. “Women have much more complex goals, but they also do want money and power. They recognize you’re likely to have much more control over your life if you have those.”

That’s a pretty tall order! The privilege of regarding one’s work as an exercise in self-actualization has until recently been available only to a chosen wealthy and/or brilliant few. Throughout most of history, people have worked to live, not lived to work. This strikes me as very similar to the dilemma described by Andrew Hacker in his book Mismatch: The Growing Gulf Between Women and Men:

Men and women marry for different reasons. Both seek more of and from a mate than in the past. Men want the benefits of companionship, but also a nest to which they can repair and relax with the domestic details in functioning order. It’s also a lair where men want to retain much of their freedom and independence. Men generally love their partners less because loving itself commands less of his life. They need to retain, not impair their powers to take on the world.

Men are more satisfied in marriages than wives. They are getting what they want, for the most part.

Women want more from marriage; they are willing to relinquish more for love. And they expect that through marriage they will grow and learn more about themselves. Women are more prepared to alter their identity.

This mismatch is not new, but women are now more likely to leave a marriage when they fail to get what they want. 

If women expect both marriage and career to be vehicles of personal growth leading to something like enlightenment, or at least deep life satisfaction, it’s no wonder they are disillusioned and unhappy. They’re expecting far too much. We weren’t born to have a good time. Our job is to reproduce while maintaining a civilization (and economy) that will nurture our offspring, enabling them to perpetuate the cycle.

Most of the focus on female attrition from the workforce centers on either discrimination, e.g. not enough women in boardrooms, or the difficulties in simultaneously managing career and family. Little attention is given to what women actually prefer. From the Financial Times’ Gender & The Workplace: What do women really want from work?:

An often overlooked piece of the puzzle might be women’s own choices and preferences – and the data on this is persuasive. The US’s Center for Work-Life Policy indicates how women rank a number of career priorities, such as flexible work arrangements and collaboration, ahead of compensation.

Susan Pinker, Canadian psychologist, refers in her book The Sexual Paradox, to the importance women attach to “intrinsic values”, such as an ability to make a contribution, compared with pay. Power, for its own sake, is just not that appealing to most women. In fact, it turns out to be the goal highly qualified women care least about.

Among the highly educated women surveyed by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Carolyn Buck Luce, 85 per cent are motivated by other values, such as flexibility and working with people they respect.

As Ms Pinker writes: “At least 10 studies show that women, on average, find social aspects of the job more important than men, whereas men find pay and advancement the big carrots.”

Obviously, women do care about pay as well (and the less educated a woman is, the more likely she is to care), just as men also care about the social context of a job. But the weight men and women tend to attach to each differs.

Hewlett, in her 20o2 article Executive Women and the Myth of Having it All, advises women to give careful consideration to their objectives well ahead of time:

1. Figure out what you want your life to look like at 45. 

If you want children (and 86-89% of high achieving women do), you need to become highly intentional and take action now.

2. Give urgent priority to finding a partner.

High achieving women have an easier time finding a partner in their 20s and early 30s.

3. Have your first child before 35.

The occasional miracle notwithstanding, late-in-life childbearing is fraught with risk and failure. 

4. Choose a career that will give you the gift of time.

Avoid professions with rigid career trajectories. Certain careers provide more flexibility and are more forgiving of interruptions. Female entrepreneurs, for example, do better than female lawyers in combining work and family – and they both do better than corporate women. 

I’ll add one to Hewlett’s list:

Get real about what a career can offer in terms of personal growth and happiness. A career that gives you time, meaning and purpose, healing the planet, flexibility, money and power? Hahahahahahaha.