Since reliable birth control in the 1960s, women have entered the workforce en force, but the narratives on how to negotiate marriage and motherhood with the new role of a career were never articulated, leading to women struggling to figure out how to do it all.
Women working is not new. We have been working since the beginning of time. Women building careers, however, is a newer endeavor since the 1960s. Before that, women worked at home, on the farm, and in the factory, but we mostly enacted the triad of “maiden, mother, matriarch” with relative degrees of success. What happened to shift women into new roles? Reliable birth control, along with changing attitudes and the rise of feminism, launched women into the brave new world of career building. Yet, unlike men, we did not have the narratives established on how to navigate the new role of career women.
Rather than solve this problem, feminism told us ladies to be like men, or enact the masculine, as a solution to these missing roles. Sadly, what we see today are women in careers enacting the masculine. Women often find themselves unsatisfied due to an institutional, cultural, and ideological failure to accommodate the fact that we, as women, have different needs in order to produce similar outcomes to men. Sexism is partly to blame, but feminism may be just as responsible here – perhaps even more so.
Must We Sacrifice or Can We Have It All?
All humans, whether male or female, truly have to contend with sacrifice and balance. We simply cannot have it all, but this doesn’t mean we can’t have it all over the course of our lives.
How many of our male colleagues have experienced sadness over missing a first step or the first time their daughter said “dada” and the like? Men have been making these sacrifices, and indeed they are sacrifices, since long ago, and systems were then built to support them. We have also developed stories in the media and arts mirroring the reality of men in the workforce. Men, for much longer, have been able to see other men working in different careers and spheres and have emulated that. Moreover, men have had support, from not just women, but also from extended families, villages, churches, and the like.
Where did those resources go for women? As mentioned above, women have worked throughout human history, maybe not in careers per se, as women have never enjoyed the freedom and prosperity they enjoy now. Nevertheless, women have always been major contributors to human welfare and progress. And it may be argued that women need more support and resources, given our greater biological investment in coupling, pregnancy, lactation, and child-rearing.
Women are often unsatisfied due to an institutional, cultural, and ideological failure to accommodate our different needs.
Men and women receive different rewards for the same “work.” Both men and women can now be educated and build a career. But what does a man get at the end of this achievement? Well, a family – a wife and children – if he so desires. What do women get? Often, women must opt to delay marriage and children or forgo them altogether, despite desiring both. Of course, we exercise no judgment of the women who simply are not attracted to the family path and may have ended up as chiefs of medical staff at their hospitals or CEOs, but many women who do desire family life may find they are left either scrambling to have children at an “advanced maternal age,” or now, sadly, cannot at all.
For women who have children later in life and have thus built their career, the biological struggles of aging motherhood are ever-present, despite the best of reproductive endocrine technology. Many may also simply miss building a solid marriage to support the partnership in one of the most colossal of tasks, child-rearing. Finally, we must recognize there are simply fewer “qualified” people in the potential partner pool for women who delay marriage.
How are we winning in this reality that we have created where women enter the work arena without systems in play to support us and the myriad of choices we are forced to make due to our biology? We are not the same as men. That does not mean we are any less amazing professionals, but, we are not the same as men!
Feminism and All Its Missed Opportunities
In many ways, feminism has been a great opportunity creating engine for women. While allowing women to be viewed as more than wives and mothers, it helped place us on our career paths, but with no narrative on how we (or our mothers and grandmothers) were supposed to navigate these waters. Few career women can say women entering the workforce was a bad thing, but undeniably, there were and will be tradeoffs given our biology. We were not and are not properly prepared for the realities. By telling career women we are exactly the same as men, we have created a perpetual feeling of failure in women who delay or defer marriage and motherhood while in school or trying to crawl up an academic or corporate ladder.
For a long while, I was in both the Physician Mom’s Group and related spin-off female/mother/doctor groups on social media. As a childless woman, I read stories every day about how exhausted, unsupported, and negatively my sister physicians with children felt. Of course, this was not true of all women, but many a colleague had a story to share. Some felt hated by fellow residents for being pregnant and having to have their calls covered. Some felt unable to rise to the ranks of program director or department chief as they were perceived as not putting in the same hours as their male counterparts.
Telling career women they’re exactly the same as men created a perpetual feeling of failure in those who delay marriage and motherhood.
"Well, women choose less demanding career paths when they have children,” some argue as a justification. But is any path as a modern career woman truly “less demanding”? When we are taught to think of pregnancy as an “illness,” why are we surprised that our attitude towards it is one of disdain, or at least negativity? Why is motherhood a “handicap”? We must explore new ways to support it in academia, the corporate world, and beyond.
What Is a Feminine Leader? It’s Not Simply a Woman in the Masculine Leader Role
I, therefore, postulate that we can have it all, just not at the same point in time and not if the systems do not grow to accommodate the face of women. And why should it? Because even though many parts of our modern world are in desperate need of reform, driven by corporate greed and governmental controls, at its heart are the competent, caring, whip smart women who work alongside their male colleagues. We need to define femininity, feminine leadership, and other roles in our workspaces.
Feminism, it seems, has missed an opportunity. What was it? As hinted above, it told us a flat-out lie. While we are as competent and complementary to men in all spheres of life, we are not men.
I am not proposing that I, representing one woman’s perspective, have the solution. But I can ask questions:
Why has marriage and motherhood become so negatively viewed that women feel judged and ashamed to desire some pretty rad and essential elements of life?
Can we create a system where women are supported in later-stage careers, like medicine, whereby we can marry and have children first if we choose?
For women who don’t want to pursue marriage and/or motherhood, then perhaps the current system works. But what about for those of us who do? The career-driven working world must evolve itself to allow for this. We can’t place the burden of “super mom-doctor/CEO/businesswoman/blogger/etc.” on women alone, or even worse, create a system that forces us to tragically give up on marriage and motherhood altogether.
Only by appreciating women and men for their differences can we attempt to solve the problem. Simply stating that there is no problem or that the problem is men, creates an adversarial, emotionally fueled feud that is bound to end in a stalemate and cause both genders to suffer. Does this not just contribute to the hot topic of employee burnout? The current way is simply not working, and the wellness of our world is at stake.
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