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The complex choice between job and family
By Cathy Young | May 6, 2002
The unexpected news that top-level presidential adviser Karen Hughes was leaving her post for family reasons quickly turned into a familiar script: Successful woman sacrifices high-powered career for motherhood.
We've had the usual responses from the usual suspects. Some liberals lament that Hughes's impending departure from a White House that once prided itself on being family-friendly shows that our society still makes it nearly impossible to succeed in the workplace while raising children. Some conservatives see this news as more evidence that the reason women are so few in the upper echelons of business and politics is not that a male power structure keeps them out, but that they have different priorities and different roles than men. Some feminists worry that Hughes's decision may hurt women, reinforcing the stereotype that they are less serious about their careers. Others see her as a good role model, showing that, as Hughes put it, "women can make choices that are good for their family and pursue their careers": She will continue to advise President Bush from Texas and will remain involved in politics.
What to make of all these competing interpretations? For one, Hughes's example shows that sometimes there are family needs which the workplace cannot accommodate. No amount of profamily intentions could change the fact that after Sept. 11, the demands and pressures of a White House job became far greater than before. What's more, one apparently important factor for Hughes was the desire to move her family back to Texas, which she and her husband regard as their real home; she felt that she wanted her 15-year-old son go to school there rather than in Washington.
It is an undisputed fact that women are far more likely than men to quit or scale back their careers for family reasons. This isn't necessarily because men are more selfish: It is still widely believed, by men and women alike, that a man's job is a part of his family role as the breadwinner while a woman's job is in conflict with her family role as the homemaker. Thus, a man who puts in long hours at work can be seen as working "for" his family; a woman tends to be seen as shortchanging hers.
The same division of roles has traditionally made it possible for a man to delegate most child-rearing obligations to his wife and still be a good father, in his own eyes and those of others. A mother, on the other hand, is liable to feel guilty about letting someone else take care of her child - even if that "someone" is the child's father.
There is little doubt that the so-called glass ceiling keeping women from the top positions of corporate and political power consists primarily of such often unspoken, deeply held expectations and attitudes. Conservatives are right about this, and even many feminists, such as law professor and author Susan Estrich, now more or less concede this truth.
But conservatives are wrong to assume that sex roles are rooted wholly in biology and impervious to cultural change. They are changing already: Today's dads increasingly treat fatherhood as a hands-on job. Men in their 20s and 30s are far more likely than men of older generations to say they would give up higher pay and career advancement for more family time.
Indeed, it is hardly impossible to find examples of men (such as Danny Ainge, former coach of the Phoenix Suns basketball team) giving up high-level jobs for their families' welfare. Maybe the problem is not only our stereotyped expectations but our stereotyped perceptions of people's actions.
A few years ago, when Republican congresswoman Susan Molinari announced her decision to retire and spend more time with her daughter, her explanation was largely accepted at face value. When her husband and colleague Bill Paxon made the same announcement less than a year later, it was widely assumed that his stated motive was a smokescreen for Republican power struggles. In the case of Hughes, The New Republic has pointed out that her influence in the White House has waned since Sept. 11 and that her move back to Austin - which will undoubtedly be the base for the 2004 Bush campaign - may actually give her a more important if less visible role.
Does this mean that Hughes's talk of balancing career and family is mere spin? No. Maybe it means that when men and women make important life decisions, their motives are often very complex - too complex to fit neatly into a box labeled pink or blue.