Why We Should Stop Telling Women To "Have It All"

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End of GenderThis piece was originally published on YourTango as part of a special series on the End of Gender. This series includes bloggers from HyperVocalRole/RebootGood Men ProjectThe Huffington PostSalonMs. MagazineYourTangoPsychology TodayPrincess Free Zone,The Next Great Generation, and Man-Making.

My parents thought they were being clever when they decided to name their youngest daughter Jordan. They envisioned a grizzled executive inspecting my sister’s resume, smoking a cigar and snarling, “Get this guy in here.” When future Mr. Manager’s 2 o’clock entered with a gender-neutral knock, he’d look up from his roll top, bewildered to find a young woman. They would exchange firm handshakes.

Maybe Mom and Dad weren’t pranksters but clairvoyants. Men currently comprise only 43 percent of the workforce—an unprecedented national shift into the minority that’s detailed in Hanna Rosin’s “The End of Men“—so my sister’s unisex name could still help her get interviews. But it won’t be because employers reject women, rather that they’re short on men. 

Lil’ sis is applying to college soon. If she leaves her applications’ gender box blank, she could be an accidental victor in the latest affirmative action trend—universities actively recruiting male students. Since today’s women are attaining progressively higher positions of influence—Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust and New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson come to mind—Jordan may one day interview potential hires herself.

But becoming a boss almost automatically kills a woman’s sex appeal. Talk about double standards. A man in charge exudes confidence, charisma, and especially stability, the mating call trifecta—I have a good, steady job, and now that I can afford to support a family, I’m ready to make one. Meanwhile, if we believe the caricatures, the female boss is an icy, tightly-wound ballbuster. A new study in October’s Journal of Sex estimates that assertive women who favor making individual choices without their partner’s consent have 100 times less intercourse. The complications are twofold: women rightfully refusing to settle for less successful men, and men feeling emasculated—and turned off—by their breadwinning wives and girlfriends.

You might remember Saturday Night Live‘s solution to this woman-as-boss dilemma in a 2006 commercial parody narrated by the rapper Ludacris: “I see you ladies out in da club, lookin’ fine, expressin’ yourself with your sexy t-shirts on. But when you in the office, you gotta keep it under wraps. Well, not anymore. … Booty Bidness Workwear is for the woman who knows that being the boss doesn’t mean you gotta stop being fine!” Cut to Amy Poehler and Kristen Wiig strutting down corridors and helming meetings, wearing Clintonesque pantsuits emblazoned with the phrases “Nympho,” “Bi-Curious,” “They’re real,” and “Tasty.”

Is this progress?

Journalists love glorifying the new powerful woman. Dan Abrams’ Man Down: Why Women Really Are Better Cops, Drivers, Gamblers, Spies, World Leaders, Beer Tasters, Hedge Fund Managers and Just About Everything Else makes its argument right there in the title, and the Newsweek cover story “Where Women Are Winning,” by Jesse Ellison ranked 165 countries based on where it’s best to be a woman (bottom line: ladies, move to Iceland). But you still won’t see one of us delivering a State of the Union address, Catholic church homily, or late night monologue on a major network. Augusta National Golf Club and the Little Rascals’ “He-Man Woman Haters Club” have plenty in common. And instead of the NFL, we have the LFL (that’s the Lingerie Football League).

On average, a woman earns 77 cents for every dollar a man makes performing the same task. Although more females are employed in total, and in more industries than ever, those jobs are concentrated at the bottom. As Rosin writes, “Near the top of the jobs pyramid, of course, the upward march of women stalls. Prominent female CEOs, past and present, are so rare that they count as minor celebrities.”

Last year, I interviewed for an online producer position at a well-known TV news station. I met with the website’s director (a man) and executive producer (a woman). The interview went well, as did the writing test that followed, but when I didn’t get the job, the gentleman who’d recommended me called with some advice: don’t mention “glass ceilings” when you meet a potential employer. During my interview, I had remarked how refreshing it was to encounter a female executive producer, which is apparently a dealbreaker. However much the office atmosphere has improved for women, I guess we’re not supposed to mention it out loud.

Discrimination against women is not a fad. We’re not talking about jeggings here. Before the publication of her first book, Joanne Rowling’s editor at Bloomsbury, Barry Cunningham, insisted that the author use initials, in case her given name deterred young male readers. “They could have called me Enid Snodgrass,” Rowling told The Telegraph of London. “I just wanted Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone published.” These days, J.K. Rowling is one of the most successful writers ever, but we’ll never know if “Joanne” could have sold half a billion books, the rights to eight films, and inspired an entire theme park.

More women graduate from college than men, which may seem like a giant stride in the feminist direction. But part of the reason is that we feel we must. As Rosin points out, the income for a 25-to-34-year-old female with only a regent’s diploma is $7,000 less annually than a man in that demographic. Men can drop out of college citing game changers who have thrived in the corporate, media, and political worlds sans degree—Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Rush Limbaugh, Karl Rove, Ted Turner, Brian Williams, Mark Zuckerberg. Women cannot do the same—our business careers depend on our degrees, which we will spend many decades paying off.

The new Sarah Jessica Parker film, I Don’t Know How She Does It, is the latest incarnation of that question no one need ask a man: “Can a woman have it all?” The issue is raised again and again, and it’s simply because women have shorter reproductive windows. In our 20s, we’re too poor for motherhood, especially in this economy. According to a study by the University of St. Andrews and Edinburgh University, a woman loses 90 percent of her eggs by age 30, with a mere 3 percent left when she turns 40. There are only a few short years to have children; the very same years when entry-level drones are promoted to management. I’d venture that the growing power of women, at least in the middle and upper class, is directly related to the increased number of fertility options, including egg harvesting, in vitro fertilization, surrogacy, and single parent adoption. As our definitions of masculinity and femininity change, the expression “having it all” ought to be banished. Or, at the very least, the definition of “all” should be broadened beyond the default “career, marriage, kids.”

My parents’ savvy strategizing developed in time for their youngest child. I was six when Jordan was born, but there might as well be a generation between us—she was named for the future, and I was named for the past. Specifically, I was christened Jenna after Jenna Wade, Priscilla Presley’s character on Dallas. Jenna Wade, who left the same man at the altar, twice, to elope with an Italian count.

I take back what I said about my parents being clairvoyant.

Photo credit mirimcfly/Flickr

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