On this International Women’s Day, we can empower women by dispelling the myth that children and careers are not compatible.
A few years ago, Chimamanda Adichie, author of Half of a Yellow Sun, gave a TED Talk on “The Danger of a Single Story,” in which she warned that if we only hear one story about a person or country, we risk critical – and often permanent –misunderstandings.
On International Women’s Day, this danger is particularly relevant, since a “single story” dominates the western framework on the issue of women, careers, and families. In Canada, while 71 per cent of women with children under the age of six work, the cultural and media dialogue on the topic remains incredibly negative, focusing on the ways in which having children can impede a woman’s career success. Exceptions to this are either celebrity stories or stories of the uber corporate elite (like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg).
Admittedly, having a successful career isn’t easy, and doing so while maintaining a strong family life can be even more of a challenge.
A recent study of business-school graduates from the University of Chicago found that soon after graduation, men and women had “nearly identical incomes and weekly hours worked.” Fifteen years later, however, the men were making about 75 per cent more money than the women. The one subgroup of women whose careers resembled those of the men? Women with no children.
Nevertheless, countless ordinary working mothers do achieve both post-baby career success and a strong and fulfilling family life – it’s just that their stories tend to be overlooked, further fuelling the “single story.”
The dangers of this single story are numerous and real. For instance, we regularly hear how, for the first time in history, women have become the majority of the workforce. Women are also the majority at universities, as well as at professional and graduate schools. Yet, a recent report by the American Journal of Sociology found that mothers are 79 per cent less likely to get hired than non-mothers with equal resumes and job experiences.
What this variance shows is that perception matters. Individuals and organizations continue to believe that, for women, children will be an obstacle to professional contribution and success. Believing this to be true, they make employment decisions that make it become true. (They are, of course, overlooking the data that shows that working mothers actually make better employees.)
On an individual level, this negative single story prompts women to create their own barriers. In her wildly popular TED Talk, Sheryl Sandberg discusses how women “leave before they need to leave,” leaning away from new challenges and career opportunities in fear of how they will manage – before even trying.
Increasing our focus on the stories of post-baby success that surround us is one way we can start countering the dominant single story that says that children and careers are not compatible. Until this cultural shift occurs, employers, government, and organizations are less likely to invest in the programs and policies that would make a genuine change in the lives of working parents.
Photo courtesy of Flickr.