Young women today can lean in. We can step up. We can grind the last shards of the glass ceiling into a powder. We can have it all. But what if we don’t want to?
In 1970, 3% of law students, 4% of MBA candidates, and 10% of medical students were female. Those numbers are so small I have to picture a classroom of 25 with one lone lady in the corner to really wrap my head around how isolating that might have felt.
I wonder, could those single-digit representatives have predicted that 45 years later those numbers would all be at or approaching 50%? When they look at law firms and hospitals and corporate America and see each new class achieve reasonable equality, do they feel validated? Do they feel like pioneers?
Or are they disappointed? When they look past the parity of first-year associates and entry-level positions and see that the c-suites and boardrooms are still overwhelmingly male, do they wonder what the hell we’ve been doing all this time? Do they blame discrimination and bias? Lack of ambition and the proverbial leaning out? Do they think we’ve lost our fire?
I called my mom while I was reading The Good Girls Revolt (Lynn Povich), the source of those statistics above, to share my shock at the 1970 numbers. She laughed at my surprise; my mother was 18 in 1970 and remembers exactly how bad it was. Her parents, she reminded me, considered her college tenure unsuccessful because she didn’t emerge with an MRS degree.
When I offered up how much progress had been made, she pushed back with the dearth of female leadership at the top of virtually every field. Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer are icons largely because their paths have been so rare. At most companies the percentage of women shrinks from 50% to single digits (if not 0) at each subsequent rung up the leadership ladder.
To drive home her point, she reminded me that many of my female friends and peers have been stepping off corporate ladders lately, and that consequently those ugly stats at the top were unlikely to change any time soon.
I don’t think she meant it as such, but it felt like an accusation.
The general phenomenon feels more specific and more personal than the headline grabbing stats and best-selling titles would suggest. For many people I know, the guilt at stepping off the ceiling-breaker path conflicts with the desire to move away from a corporate culture that doesn’t feel fulfilling. But as my mom would surely say, who’s going to fix this shit if you all opt out?
If you believe like I do that the world would be a better, kinder, safer place with more diverse leadership, then it stands to reason that you want to encourage women, people of color, LGBT people, and other underrepresented groups in pursuit of leadership positions. But what if you’re not sure you want to be one of the leaders? Are you leaving the hard work to others while you pursue the top of the Maslow pyramid?
As a group, privileged Millennials carry at our core a deeply instilled sense of our own specialness. As Wait But Why put it, even while acknowledging the practical reality that everyone can’t be special, we secretly think, yeah, sure, but I’m still special.
This generational delusion is compounded by an extra burden on the high-achieving, hyper-privileged girls: not only are we smart and special, we are smart, special, and capable of changing the ratio of power. We can lean in. We can step up. We can grind the last shards of the glass ceiling into a powder, sprinkle it on our cupcakes, and eat them too. We can have it all.
But what if we don’t want to?
A while back, I was brainstorming about my long-term, capital-F Future with my dad and mentioned, in a litany of possibilities, that sometimes I think about becoming a teacher. To say he scoffed might be a stretch, but his feelings were clear. I was/am supposed to do bigger things. What things? He’s not sure, but it should damn well light the world on fire. To say that my dad has an inflated sense of my specialness is an understatement.
All around me, my friends are facing similar micro-conflicts with parental expectations. A friend in vet school confronts ongoing, but slowly deflating, parental hopes that he’ll go to med school instead. Another is leaving her high-powered, high-potential corporate gig for nursing school. One more just left a prestige job with an established global brand to start a non-profit. Each feels passionately about the path they’re pursuing, but there’s still so much boat rocking and barrier-breaking to do. We wonder who will do it if we decide it’s not for us.
How many examples do you need to write a trend piece? Two? Three? What would the New York Times say? Well, this isn’t the Times, but I need more then one hand to count how many friends and peers are stepping off corporate ladders, declaring the whole thing a mess, and swapping salary raises and swank offices for work that feels true to them.
If that’s not leaning in, I don’t know what is.
Role Reboot regular contributor Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.