Why Young Women Are Leaning In Between

It seems every week there is another article about women and work-life balance, and last week was no exception. The New York Times’s piece describing how millennials — nicknamed here “the planning generation” — were more likely to plan pauses in their career trajectories for motherhood that their than Gen Xer or Baby Boomer counterparts.

The piece was quickly panned in the feminist blogosphere: “Do Not Let the NYT Troll You About ‘Young Women Planning Career Pauses,’” Jezebel declared and when analyzing the article a Huffington Post senior women’s editor wondered “is stepping back really such an active choice?”

But as I read the NYT article I saw myself. Throughout my life, I worked hard and my career took center stage. But even as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, prior to getting married and having children, I thought about the kind of life I would want moving forward. I wanted to find a profession that was intellectually stimulating and meaningful, but I also wanted to invest in a career that would enable me to spend time with my future family.

Planning ahead isn’t leaning out – it’s being realistic.

I have friends who charged full speed into different fields and are now realizing that they have to decide between their jobs and their children. There’s nothing wrong with jumping wholeheartedly into a career, but it’s important to think beyond the present and anticipate future needs.

One woman who attended NYU business school with me admitted to feeling misled. Throughout her life, her parents had told her that she could have it all. She could be an investment banker, a mother, and a wife. But today, she feels like that was a fallacy and in fact, she has to choose. Now she is a stay-at-home mom, electing to spend time with her children rather than in her office. She regrets not selecting a career that would allow her to have both. Investment banking wasn’t the right pick for what she wanted in the future. One day when her children are older, she hopes to return to her job in finance but is doubtful that her previous employer will welcome her back with open arms after the hiatus.

Not all women feel this way and there is definitely a cohort of my peers who are comfortable working in demanding environments. Obviously women, along with their partners, need to figure out the formula that works best for them. Financial concerns as well as lifestyle aspirations are also at play in this decision.

But while getting an MBA, a degree that grooms you to become a future executive, I encountered many women like myself. We were carefully strategizing our next professional step, while also calibrating the kind of work-life balance we hoped to achieve. Our mindset wasn’t: What is the highest paying job we can attain? Or, how can we rise through the ranks to become CEO as quickly as possible? Instead, we weighed multiple variables, and time with our children (those existing, as well as those not-yet born) was a high priority.

An MBA serves as career insurance. Of course, it also filled holes in my educational training and gave me critical skills that I use on a daily basis. Most importantly, though, it granted security. Prior to starting a family, I wanted to feel fortified. I didn’t know how soon I would want to return to work after giving birth. But as an MBA graduate, I knew I had options.

When I speak to new moms, there is a common theme. If given the choice, the new “having it all” is often a part-time job, or a full-time job where they can work remotely. These women want a gratifying work life, with the flexibility to spend time at home.

Every work-life balance article I’ve ever read ends with at least one of these three platitudes:

  1. “Women can have it all, just not at the same time.”
  2. “The corporate world needs to change if it wants to retain female talent.”
  3. “The discussion of a work-life balance is elitist since most women in America don’t have the luxury of choosing to stay-at-home.”

So instead of falling back on one of these clichés, I’ll leave it at this. The world we live in makes it hard for women to grow professionally, and on the same trajectory, as men. We absolutely need to fix inequalities in the workplace, but we also need to find ways to use our minds, our degrees, and our skill sets without compromising our desire to be present mothers.

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