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Is a dream job and thriving family too much to ask for?

Elizabeth Thomas and Ali Schwabe | Fulcrum Contributor and Staff

Illustration by Justin Labelle

“YOU CAN BE anything you want when you grow up.”
Our generation was promised that if we work hard, we can accomplish whatever goals we set for ourselves. But plenty of little girls have grown up into university students wondering ‘How?’ We worry if our lives will live up to our expectations and the expecations we sometimes feel society puts on us. How will we be able to put in extra hours to get ahead at work without missing our child’s performance in the school play that night, while also making sure to enjoy sex the way Cosmo tells us we should, making time three days a week to go to the gym to take care of our health and appearance? Oh, and we still haven’t made homemade, healthy, Pinterest-inspired cupcakes to bring to little Tommy’s school for the bake sale tomorrow. Clearly, being and doing everything we want is easier said than done.

Mercedes Mueller, a University of Ottawa student working toward her master’s in economics, is uncertain about the future and whether or not she’ll be able to have everything she wants.

“Ideally, I’d have a PhD, I’d be a professor, my research would be fantastic, it wouldn’t suffer; but I’d also be able to have a family. I’d be married, I’d have children, and somehow my career wouldn’t have to take a hit because I took time off to have a kid—but my family also wouldn’t suffer after I go back to work after giving birth,” she said. “I wonder if it’s really possible to have all of those things.”

It’s a question many women ask themselves: Can I have it all? The Fulcrum examined that question, looking at the barriers that exist for women to reach the highest levels of employment, how science and society have set up certain expectations and pressures for women, what having a family can mean for women’s careers, and how students feel about it all.

The glass ceiling
Women face barriers to political involvement and to achieving high-level positions in education and in the workforce—the numbers don’t lie. Just one quarter of Canada’s parliamentarians are women, and our nation has never elected a female prime minister. Only four per cent of Fortune 500 corporations have female CEOs.

Mueller has noticed a lack of female role models throughout her education.

“In my six years at the University of Ottawa, I’ve been taught a course in economics by a woman once. I look at my department and it’s 75 per cent males, 25 per cent females—there are maybe four or five female professors,” Mueller said. “When you’re a woman in university and thinking of going on further but you look around and you can’t even see yourself in your own faculty, you have to wonder what kind of future you really have. You wonder if you’ll just drop out after a B.A. or after a master’s degree.”

Teresa Taylor, CEO of Blue Valley Advisors, LLC and author of The Balance Myth: Rethinking Work/Life Success, has managed to push past glass ceilings throughout her career.

“Metaphorically, the glass ceiling means you can’t go any farther; you can’t go beyond something. I think that there is a glass ceiling for women in corporations,” she said in an interview with the Fulcrum. “I do not subscribe to that men put it there … women keep themselves from going through it. I think that we take ourselves out of the game.”

Penny Collenette, a U of O law professor who recently completed a two-year term at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, spoke in an interview with the Fulcrum about leaving college at age 19 to work as a Liberal party organizer and working to overcome barriers along the way.

When Collenette served as director of appointments under former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, she was shocked to find that only 29 per cent of government appointees were women. She immediately set out to tip the scale toward equality—and was met with fierce opposition. Many of Collenette’s detractors believed that deliberately appointing women was “reverse sexism” and went against the principle of merit. Collenette was unfazed.

“Some of the ministers would ask, ‘Where are these women? How are you going to find women to appoint?’” Collenette recounted. “And I would reply, ‘Leave it to me—but I don’t want any arguments once I’ve found them.’”

She found the task of finding women for the public service difficult, because the female candidates weren’t pushing themselves to the top.

“Back then, women were not as forthcoming about our accomplishments,” Collenette explained. “We didn’t have a strong national cohort.”

According to Taylor, the number of women filling executive positions would be higher if so many women didn’t hold themselves back.

“There’s nothing intellectually stopping a woman from moving to the top,” she said. “I do not believe men stop women; I don’t buy that at all. I’ve never experienced that. We stop ourselves.

“Women get to this mid-level position, and when taking the next step they say to themselves, ‘Oh, I don’t think I can do it. I can’t work more hours, I can’t do more. I’m barely surviving this week, how am I possibly going to survive if I get more responsibility?’ So they’re going to leave the company or they just pull back,” said Taylor. “As an executive at the top of a big corporation, I would have been happy to hire more women. There weren’t any. If I had my way we would have hired them all. Even if you talk to men, they’ll say, ‘I’m happy to hire five women executives, just show me where they are.’”

Male and female brains
Just where did the women go? Is it simply that most women don’t want to move past mid-level positions in their jobs, or are there more factors at work?

These questions go to the root of broad-based cultural assumptions about the supposed unique abilities of men and women. The notion that men and women have inherently different psychologies—“male brains” and “female brains”—has been corroborated by Cambridge University psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen. In his book The Essential Difference, published in 2003, Baron-Cohen writes, “The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.”

But this viewpoint doesn’t sit well with everyone. Researchers, including Australian neuroscientist Cordelia Fine, say male domination of certain fields is not a matter of physiology, temperament, or supposed differences in male and female psychology. It is our culture, they say, that is sexist—not our brains.

In her 2010 book Delusions of Gender, Fine debunks Baron-Cohen’s theory of distinct male and female brains.

She writes, “We start to think of ourselves in terms of our gender, and stereotypes and social expectations become more prominent in the mind. This can trigger unintentional discrimination. In other words, the social context influences who you are.”

Ultimately, Fine argues that our nature and our culture are inextricably linked. If women or men appear naturally predisposed to behave a certain way, socialization, not physiology, is responsible.

Speaking from her own experiences, Taylor agrees.

“I grew up where society taught me that I have to be a mother first and then if I want to work, that could be interesting,” she explained. “The messaging of our society in general has always messaged to women that you stay home. And if you decided to go to work, you better be careful. Men have always been expected to go to work.”

Michelle Legault, a fourth-year criminology and women’s studies student at the U of O, also feels that a disproportionate amount of pressure is placed on females.

“I do think that female students have what I would consider a burden on maternity, especially because society is very ageist and there’s a lot of stigma around women having first a career and then a child,” she said. “I think it’s hard to reconcile having a child and having a career or even a really good education.”

The parent trap
Our society seems to imply that motherhood should be one of women’s primary concerns, but many individuals hold that becoming a mom is an impediment to career success.

In a commencement speech at New York City’s all-female Barnard College, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said, “When a woman starts thinking about having children, she doesn’t raise her hand anymore … she starts leaning back.”

In her op-ed, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” published in The Atlantic last summer, Princeton University professor Anne-Marie Slaughter writes, “In Washington, ‘leaving to spend time with your family’ is a euphemism for being fired … How could anyone voluntarily leave the circles of power for the responsibilities of parenthood?”

For working mothers, the pressure to perform well at work while still being a good parent can be significant, especially in a culture that traditionally sees women as homemakers.

One workday earlier in Taylor’s career, she snuck home to check on the nanny she had hired. She arrived to music blaring and the nanny on her cell phone. Taylor’s infant son was asleep in his swing, his diaper soiled and his eyes swollen from crying. She fired her nanny on the spot but she was due back at work. She knew her son needed her, but so did her coworkers.

Now, Taylor feels seeking perfection both at home and at work is impossible.

“I started at the bottom of the company, basically, and as I worked my way through, I did have two children and continued to work. My big realization was that there’s no such thing as balance,” she said. “When I struggled, I was trying to find this balance. I was trying to be this perfect mom, perfect wife, perfect at work. And it’s just not possible—it’s absolutely not possible.

“I finally realized that hey, I’m just not going to be that way. I’m not going to be perfect at everything. One year I’m going to work a whole bunch and I’m going to miss some of my kids’ stuff, and the next year maybe I’m not going to be at every single work thing.”

U of O public administration and political science student Nasha Brownridge feels that she must choose between a high-powered career and having a healthy, happy family.

“It is the unfortunate reality of politics in Canada and many other developed nations that women must actually make a choice between having a family and a successful, established career in politics,” said Brownridge. “There are, of course, women who have done both, but not without much struggle and even criticism … It has always bothered me that my male counterpart could dedicate his entire life to a political career, and yet I am faced with having to wait should I want a functional family.”

Mueller feels that men don’t face the same career choices as women who want a family do.

“If you’re a woman and you pursue the path of schooling, you take four years to do your bachelor’s degree, a year to do your master’s, five years to do your PhD. When you’re doing a PhD it’s that critical time—for me, I’ll be 27 to 32—that’s the time when you want to be making money and buying a house and buying a car and getting married and getting pregnant. Anyone who chooses that path [of higher education]—they’re delayed as compared to their peers by five to seven years,” she said.

Not only does Mueller worry that getting a PhD will delay her personal life, she also worries that pursuing a family might derail her professional career—a worry she feels men don’t deal with.

“My guy friends who want to pursue the same path as I do think, ‘Oh shit, I hope I can find a wife or someone who wants to have my babies.’ But if you think of the traditional sense of having a kid, women are taking nine months to be pregnant, and then a subsequent year to raise a child in the early years. I don’t think guys have to think about ‘How will that impact my career?’,” she said.

“If you’re on the cutting edge of something in your field and you have to take two years off during that time [to have a child], how does that impact your career? You’re in the labour force for less time and on average you’ll earn less money. You face a pretty big trade-off.”

Taylor was able to have the career and the family she wanted, but not always exactly how she wanted them. She occasionally brought her children into the office over the weekend, and at times turned down promotions for their sake.

“I made it work the best that I could with the environment that I had, just maybe not in the timing I wanted,” she said.

Collenette, who raised a teenage son while she and her husband served in high-level federal government positions, believes strongly that having a family will not necessarily impede professional advancement.

“Having a child adds to your career success because it makes you a more balanced person. You’re more sensitive, more plugged into your community, and more aware, depending on what profession you’re in,” she explained.

Finally, Taylor says women are too hard on themselves.

“It’s okay if the kids have takeout pizza once a week. That’s not the end of the world; they’re going to be okay,” she said. “We’re so hard on ourselves, we put these expectations about being super mom and super at work.”

Pink-collared burdens
Aside from reconciling the desire for a family and a career, female students and women in the workforce face other pressures. Whether it’s sexism, the need to balance societal pressures to look a certain way, or not having female role models in their desired fields, there are particular stresses being put on female students, employees, and politicians.

Mueller says the female-to-male ratio in her program puts pressure on women to succeed.

“At the master’s level in economics there are around 60 of us and 15 or 20 are girls, so there is that added pressure. I do feel that girls feel like they need to prove themselves,” she said.

She also spoke of a lack of female role models, saying, for instance, that in her foreign affairs courses she didn’t read a single female theorist.

According to Brownridge, young women can be subject to more scrutiny than their male peers. She spoke of being treated like she was “incompetent” during her co-op term at a central government agency.

“[My manager] was giving more responsibility to my male counterpart who was only employed part-time, while I was full-time,” Brownridge said. “I initially thought it was my age, but the other student was not much older. I had to conclude that it was because I was female.”

It isn’t difficult to find examples of sexism in politics or the workforce.

In October, Australian Member of Parliament Tony Abbott gave a speech on the steps of Australia’s Parliament flanked by signs referring to Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard as “a bitch and a witch.”

In 2011, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was caught on tape referring to German Chancellor Angela Merkel as “an unfuckable lard-ass.”

Taylor dealt with sexism in the form of name-calling throughout her career, especially as she found the number of women in her workplace dwindling the higher she moved up the corporate ladder. She emphasized that women can and should take responsibility to stop it.

“Over my career, if it happened to me, I just had to put an end to it myself. That’s what guys do. If guys call each other names, they say knock it off. They deal with it,” she said.

Mueller points out less obvious pressures that impact women.

“Everyone feels pressure from other people and what they think, but there are certain pressures that are more directed at women,” she said. “For example, being pretty—not only am I expected to go to all my classes and do really well at them, but I also have to show up and look good while doing it. I don’t think guys face that, though a lot of it is self-inflicted.”

While the barriers may seem overwhelming, they aren’t necessarily insurmountable.  Taylor, who is happy with her family and career, advises that patience, firm decision-making, and perhaps an acceptance that you can’t necessarily have it all exactly when, where, or how you want it, are key to leading a happy, fulfilled life. She tells women not to get discouraged.

“You can do it,” she said. “So go for it.”