You might find this puzzling and a bit infuriating, but here it goes: Career women are born of privilege, not necessity. What allows women to pursue and stick with careers is their high social-economic status. It's women who don't really need jobs—those born into comfortable circumstance who don't have to be the primary breadwinner—that have the best shot at success.
That's more or less the finding of a new study about women's career paths that analyzed data about Baby Boomer women collected from 1982 to 2010. Sociology professors Sarah Damaske of Penn State and Adrianne Frech of the University of Akron write in Harvard Business Review about their study:
Why do some women work steadily while others do not? Surprisingly, we found that women with the greatest financial needs – those who experienced poverty when they were young, were unmarried and lacked access to a second income, or were less educated – appeared to face the greatest barriers to continuous full-time work. . . Women who worked “like men” – that is, full-time for the majority of the years we examined — were more advantaged both during their childhood and throughout young adulthood relative to their peers.
The researchers don't say this but I assume that advantaged women were more likely to work "like men" because they were much more attuned to the workplace expectations of the dominant culture. In any case, the point is that women of privilege come out ahead. Even if they don't reach the pinnacle, they have more options to stay in the game. The researchers note, for instance, that "white, well-educated women were more likely to enter, leave, then re-enter the workforce than were women of color or their less-educated white peers."
So is all this an indictment of of "white female privilege"—the attitude of those who treat jobs like occasional indulgences—something they can opt in or out at their leisure?
Not at all. The authors propose a much more united view. First, they emphasize that most women work—and that they work much harder than people think, noting that over 90 percent of the women in the study had paying jobs through their forties. They add that "60 percent of the women followed what we would think of as a traditionally 'male' work pathway"—working over 50 hours a week. Moreover, even those who took time off for kids returned to the workforce.
As for getting underprivileged women onto a better career path, the researchers propose what's become a common plea for leveling gender inequities in the workplace: better parental leave, paid sick leave and subsidized childcare.
All good and fine ideas—except for two things. First, I'd wouldn't hold my breath about those policy changes. By most indicators, the U.S. just isn't there on that front. (Remember, the U.S. is the only country among the world's wealthiest that offers no paid parental leave of any sort.) Second, who says that having better parental leave, sick leave and childcare is enough? It's essential to have those benefits but that's just the starting point.
Fact is, even those privileged women aren't doing that great. They're far better off than their less-advantaged sisters, but compared to the men, they're just treading water.
Photo of Grace Kelly