For many undergraduates, the results of the recent Yale Undergraduate Work-Life Balance Survey were unsurprising: In an atmosphere where our peers constantly discuss their futures in terms of career aspirations, it follows that among Yale women who plan to have children, nearly three out of four plan to take less than a year off work and only 4 percent plan to stop working entirely after becoming mothers. It is also probably not shocking that as personal and professional balance becomes a bigger priority among young people, no difference was found in the degree to which male versus female undergraduates value both family and career. One might ask why this survey was even necessary.
The answer is found in last year’s reaction to Louise Story ’03 SOM ’06’s Yale-centered New York Times article, which asserted that “many” women at elite colleges planned to set aside career plans in favor of full-time childrearing. In the face of barely any hard evidence, mainstream publications like the Boston Globe jumped on the bandwagon, declaring in September 2005 that “despite the flaws in [Story’s] article, there is little doubt that the underlying phenomenon is real.”
But before drawing sweeping conclusions like these, it’s a good idea to find out whether they are borne out by actual data. The recent survey is the most rigorous study to date of career and family expectations among Yale undergraduates of both genders. Directed by social psychology postdoctoral student Victoria Brescoll, it was vetted by a number of social scientists, including Yale College Dean Peter Salovey. What does it mean when so-called “cultural trends” that respected publications like the Times and the Globe take for granted are so easily called into question, if not outright proven false, by a carefully crafted survey?
When it comes to these myopic portrayals of women’s life aspirations, the explanation that a desire for an attention-grabbing headline trumped accurate reporting is correct, but incomplete. This is a particular brand of antifeminist backlash, and while we’re considering the results of the survey itself (available at www.yale.edu/wc), we also have an obligation to examine the backlash’s very real consequences. The persistent, groundless presumption of a stay-at-home-motherhood resurgence among graduates of elite academic institutions is burying essential parts of the work-life balance discussion, to the detriment of all who will someday confront these issues: in other words, us.
This myth obscures the fact that barriers to women’s professional advancement continue to exist. Reporting on this false trend stymies the impetus for the equal treatment of women who want full-time careers, as well as the development of workable systems for women and men who seek more flexible options. It also makes it more difficult to articulate that, as women become equally as interested as men in professional accomplishment, men are becoming equally as interested as women in being a presence in their children’s lives. Indeed, Yale men felt more strongly than Yale women that they would be looked down upon for choosing a “non-traditional” role.
Most people are not wrestling with the choice between either full-time work or full-time parenting; rather, they desire balance in their lives. This study further indicated that Yale men and women perceive a number of barriers in society. For example, to obtaining good childcare and the ability to sustain a family on one salary. To continue to talk about career and family in a binary fashion takes much-needed attention away from solving these societal constraints.
In the end, personal fulfillment rests on a precondition of choice. If women or men desire to be full-time caregivers, no one else has a right to question the worth of that choice; indeed, the continued undervaluing of childcare is a serious problem that the feminist movement is still seeking to address. However, we must persist in asking the question of whether these “choices” are indeed freely made. Can it be called a choice when a man works full-time or when a woman stays at home full-time because that they feel obligated to do so? We simply can’t afford to lose human capital — whether it be the professional contributions of women, or the familial contributions that excellent male caregivers provide — to societal hurdles, be they concrete or perceived. Happier, satisfied individuals of both genders should be our ultimate goal.
Another result to chew on? Yale women assume that time off taken for children will be equal to their spouses’, while Yale men assume their spouses will take more time off work. If Yale men marry Yale women, someone is going to be disabused of their assumptions. And if we don’t talk about our assumptions and the barriers we perceive now, we have unpleasant surprises waiting in our future.
Christine Slaughter is a senior in Calhoun College. Tina Wu is a junior in Calhoun College. They are Women’s Center board members.