City Journal

Kay S. Hymowitz
The Plight of the Alpha Female
Women remain scarce in the most elite positions. And it’s by choice.
Autumn 2012
For women, work and family commitments have long been in tension.
BETTMANN/CORBIS/AP IMAGES
For women, work and family commitments have long been in tension.

Are we witnessing “the end of men”? You can see why the idea—also the title of a new book by journalist Hanna Rosin—makes sense. Women obtain the majority of college and graduate-school degrees. In their twenties, if they don’t have children, they outearn their male peers. They’re the primary wage earners in a rapidly growing percentage of households. American women even won more Olympic medals than their male compatriots did this summer. But for all of women’s success, there’s one area in which the rumor of male demise has been greatly exaggerated. At the top of every industry, men remain in charge. Finance, law, medicine, business, government, media, academia—you’ll have a tough time finding enough alpha-level women in any of these fields to fill a Davos conference room.

Feminists have come up with some theories to explain the dearth of women in the C-suite: those in the running would necessarily be aggressive, a trait that men in power don’t like to see in women; executives and boards don’t believe that women are capable of the highest-octane work; women lack men’s sense of entitlement in the pursuit of fame and fortune. But “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” a recent, widely discussed Atlantic cover story, should help redirect the conversation to the obvious: it’s the kids. The author, Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, described leaving “work I loved”—being the director of policy planning at the State Department, and the first female one, at that—to spend more time with her troubled teenage son. She had discovered, you see, that running a government agency means that you don’t see your kids much.

Slaughter stumbled onto a truth that many are reluctant to admit: women are less inclined than men to think that power and status are worth the sacrifice of a close relationship with their children. Academics and policymakers in what’s called the “work/family” field believe that things don’t have to be this way. But nothing in the array of work/family policy prescriptions—family leave, child care, antidiscrimination lawsuits, flextime, and getting men to cut their work hours—will lead women to infiltrate the occupational 1 percent. They simply don’t want to.

How big is the gender gap at the top? Very big. Only 4 percent of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies are women, as are 9 percent of chief financial officers. Women occupy a mere 16 percent of board seats at Fortune 500 companies. The research and advocacy group Catalyst has collected other relevant numbers: just 20 percent of law-school deans, 23 percent of federal judges, and 27 percent of state judges are women. In medical schools, 13 percent of deans and department chairs and 19 percent of full professors are women. Less than a quarter of university and college presidents are female. Women hold 90 seats out of 535 in the U.S. House of Representatives and 17 out of 100 in the Senate. Slaughter notes that many of the women in high-level government jobs she encountered during her State Department stint are leaving; men will succeed almost all of them.

This lopsidedness has surprised many. After all, women have been the majority of college graduates for over two decades now, even as corporations and nonprofits have made diversity a guiding principle, introducing mentoring and networking programs for women and telling human-resources offices to make hiring and promoting women a priority. In corporate America, the two sexes move into entry-level jobs at a similar rate.

Yet women don’t ascend the career ladder in the business world the way men do. According to Catalyst, just 37 percent of those who receive the first major promotion—to manager—are women. And the higher you go, the scarcer women get. Only 26 percent of vice presidents and senior executives are female, as are 14 percent of executive committees, and those numbers haven’t changed in years.

It seems that few women are even auditioning for the star positions. A longitudinal study of Booth School of Business graduates at the University of Chicago found men and women launching careers in equal numbers and, if you take into account differences in their industries and subspecialties, earning about the same amount of money at the outset. Ten years later, though, barely half of the female grads—52 percent—were working full-time, compared with over 90 percent of the men.

The same sputtering career pattern shows up in the law. A 2011 study by the National Association of Women Lawyers concluded that “female flight gains momentum at each level of seniority” in the nation’s largest law firms. Close to half of first- and second-year associates are women. But just 34 percent of “counsel”-level lawyers—the next step up—are female. By the time you reach equity partners, the percentage of women has dropped to 15 percent. The only niche in which women outnumber men is staff attorneys (55 percent)—lawyers who aren’t on the partnership track. These numbers, too, have barely budged over the past decade. Just about every profession and academic specialty—from medicine to journalism, from television to science—has found its career pipeline similarly losing women.

Why do ambitious, educated women moving into their mid-career years, usually in their thirties and early forties, slacken their work pace? The answer doesn’t take a scientist—male or female—to figure out. That’s typically the do-or-die moment for starting a family. Asked why they went part-time or left the labor force, the Booth women invariably cited family. As a number of studies have noted, academics usually get on the tenure track in their early thirties, just as female fertility is beginning to drop. To move to the next level—actually getting tenure—requires years of teaching, research, grant applications, committee meetings, and conferences abroad. No wonder female academics often make other career plans. Law professor Mary Ann Mason has studied these trends extensively and calculates that mothers in academia are 35 percent less likely to get on the tenure track than fathers are and twice as likely as academic dads to work in part-time or non-tenure-track teaching positions. As for women who do accept fast-track university jobs, about two-thirds never have children.

In every field, in fact, women who make it to the very top are far more likely to be childless than the average woman. In The New CEOs, Richard Zweigenhaft and G. William Domhoff looked at 28 female current or former chief executives of Fortune 500 companies and found that only 16 had children, a far smaller fraction than the eight out of ten women in the general population who have kids. Mason and her daughter, Eve Mason Ekman, report a similar imbalance in the sciences in their book Mothers on the Fast Track. Among tenured academic scientists—the sort who may go on to make big discoveries and win big prizes—72 percent of the men are married with kids; the same is true of only half of the women. Cornell professors Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams examined 20 years of data about female scientists and concluded that, if childless, they were “paid, promoted, and rewarded equivalently to their male peers. . . . Children completely change the landscape for women.”

Aspiring mistresses of the universe face long work hours, which can make it tough to see the kids. Sylvia Anne Hewlett, founder of the nonprofit Center for Talent Innovation, reports that 45 percent of “managerial workers” in large corporations have “extreme jobs,” putting in an average of 73 hours a week. Work/family theorists often blame this grueling workweek on what University of California law professor Joan Williams calls a “macho” workplace ethos that forces men into “the straightjacket of conventional masculinity.” The long week, she argues, represents “systemic discrimination” against women, who still find themselves expected to be in charge of the children.

That analysis may make sense in a gender studies class, but anyone running a business knows the real reason for today’s voracious workplace: a global economy, indifferent to sexual identity, that has intensified competition in just about every industry. Globalization has made continental and international travel a necessary part of business, which tends to displease mothers of young children. And having clients and colleagues in scattered time zones often means a never-ending workday. Consider a 2005 Fast Company profile of Irene Tse, at the time 34 and working 80 hours a week as head of the government-bond-trading desk at Goldman Sachs. She typically got up two or three times a night to check on global market activity. Eventually, she said, “your body clock just wakes up when London opens.”

Of course, some occupations are greedier for time than others: investment banking, management consulting, and computer engineering are notoriously demanding, which helps explain why they’re heavily populated by men, usually with less intensively employed wives running things at home. In case you’re wondering, Tse, now the chief investment officer for JPMorgan Chase’s North American region, has no children.

Work/family academics and policy mavens have a list of family-friendly policy ideas that, they believe, would help women resolve the tension between parenthood and career, patch the leaky pipeline, and ease the gender gap in Alphaville. These include lengthy paid leave for new mothers and fathers—the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act mandates only unpaid leave and only for 12 weeks—universal child care, laws requiring work flexibility in hours and location, part-time jobs that include benefits, and regulated work hours. Such policies, especially paid maternity leave, are the norm in much of Europe. Work/family articles usually begin with some version of the sentence “The United States is the only country in the developed world with no paid maternity leave,” or, more dramatically, “America has the most hostile-to-family policy in the world.”

Perhaps the most promising policy for ambitious women who also want to be mothers is flextime. The groundwork for flextime was prepared in the 1970s when management theorists like Peter Drucker began touting the benefits of worker autonomy and self-direction. Two developments helped turn theory into reality. First, new technologies like mobile phones, e-mail, and videoconferencing made it possible for employees to work in locations other than the office and, in many cases, to structure their own hours. And second, worker demand for flextime grew, especially among the mothers who were now making up a larger share of mid-level employees. Even though the government doesn’t require it, 77 percent of American firms these days offer flextime to some of their workers, according to the respected Families and Work Institute.

Flexibility, needless to say, is a perk of knowledge work: a waitress or Walmart manager can’t do her job while sipping coffee in a home office. Higher-skill employees increasingly are able to leave work at 3 PM for a child’s soccer game or flute lesson, check their e-mail and return essential calls, make dinner, and go back to work in a home office for another three or four hours. Facebook CFO Sheryl Sandberg famously announced that she departs her office at 5:30 PM every day so that she can have dinner with her kids, though she’s doubtless keeping company with her computer and smartphone late into the night and before dawn the next morning. This is a woman, after all, who advises younger female workers: “Don’t take your foot off the gas pedal.”

Some industries are also trying to make traditional career tracks more flexible. Universities, where faculties have always benefited from flextime in the form of summer and between-semester vacations, are experimenting with letting faculty delay the tenure review process, which typically takes place after five years of teaching. The new arrangement has been popular among female academics having babies. Similarly, certain large law firms are introducing “alternative scheduling”—reducing hours and delaying partnership decisions for people with caretaking responsibilities. In addition, over the past decade or so, larger law offices have started to offer nonequity partnerships for employees who don’t want the pressure of worrying about the firm’s bottom line.

Can such family-friendly policies admit more women to the executive suite? Not on the evidence. Consider two countries with some of the most highly touted family policies in the world, the kind that the work/family advocates are always calling for: France and Sweden. Both countries offer generous paid maternity leave and, in Sweden’s case, months of paternity leave as well. Both express commitment to female equality, even using quotas to bring women into powerful political positions; in Sweden, for example, two major parties require women to be 50 percent of their electoral slates. The Swedish parliament has virtual parity between men and women; half of the top ministers, too, are women. In France, women make up only a little over a quarter of parliamentary seats, but shortly after his election, President François Hollande appointed 17 women to serve in his 34-seat cabinet. A quota law passed in 2010, and under consideration by the European Union as a whole, has tripled the percentage of women on corporate boards.

Yet the top of the private economy in both countries remains an alpha-male preserve. At none of the 40 big companies listed in France’s CAC 40 stock-market index does a woman sit in the CEO’s office. The Lawyer reports that more than half of the associates at large French law firms are female—yet women are still only half as likely as men to be partners. There are only ten female presidents at the country’s 87 universities. In Sweden, so few women are in the top ranks in the private sphere that labor economists have been scratching their heads.

The conclusion that a number of them have reached provides a textbook case of unintended consequences: the very family policies that make it easier for women to combine work and family discourage them from pursuing career Olympus. In a paper called “Is There a Glass Ceiling in Sweden?,” James Albrecht and colleagues speculate that the country’s maternal benefits are so generous that they “may discourage strong career commitment” by women. The paper also points out that Sweden’s liberal wage policies, elevating incomes at the bottom of society, make it prohibitively expensive for many ambitious mothers—and mothers still do most of the child care, even in Sweden—to hire outside help during hours when day-care centers are closed. In many countries, including the United States, professional-class dual-income families have become dependent on cheap immigrant labor to mind the kids and clean the house; researchers Patricia Cortés and José Tessada trace the increase in the work hours of highly educated American women to the 1990s, when immigration pushed down the cost of household services. The Swedish welfare state may reduce income inequality, but one consequence may be fewer women at the top.

Unintended consequences happen in America as well. One study of 70 top law firms by The Lawyer found that the most competitive, least family-friendly, “super-elite” firms had more female equity partners than did firms with heavily used family-friendly policies. “The results seem counterintuitive,” one commentator on the study wrote. “Who would guess that women would fare better on the equity barometer at firms where the odds of making partner are ridiculously slim for everyone? By the same token, wouldn’t you expect that at the less competitive, two-tier firms (especially those with well-established part-time or flexible policies), there’d be women equity partners popping out at every corner?”

This response fails to take into account how alphas make it. Take a long maternity leave and work part-time for a while, and you’ve seriously handicapped yourself if you hope to be chief someday. A 2007 McKinsey study concluded that what correlates with high levels of female leadership in a country’s economy isn’t the percentage of women in the labor force; it’s the percentage of a country’s total hours worked that women are on the job. If women work less—whether their countries require it or their companies allow it—their chances of becoming top dog plummet.

The truth is that Sheryl Sandberg is an exception. Most alphas don’t have dinner with their kids regularly. If you want a more realistic take on alpha life, think of Christine Lagarde. Before becoming the French finance minister and then head of the International Monetary Fund, Lagarde was a lawyer at Baker & McKenzie, an international law firm. Lagarde’s incredible work habits were so un-French that her countrymen nicknamed her “L’Américaine.” She traveled incessantly but somehow managed to give birth to two children. “Lagarde’s round-the-clock and round-the-world career got the better of two marriages,” The Daily Beast said in a profile, adding cheerfully: “But she has always said she made a point of calling her young boys twice a day, before school and before bed, no matter what time she had to set her alarm.”

Marissa Mayer, the newly named head of Yahoo!, looks as though she’ll have similar priorities. After announcing her pregnancy, Mayer reassured stockholders that she would take only two weeks of maternity leave—and that she’d still be working during that time. CEOs with 12,500 employees don’t take weeks off from work for any reason—a vacation, a death in the family, cancer. Either Mayer could spend some serious time with her new baby or she could run a company, but not both. She chose the company.

After Mayer’s announcement, the New York Times ran an article about female executives with the same approach. Most of those interviewed seemed to be the ambitious, preternaturally energetic sorts who populate America’s start-up world. “Life is a marathon, not a sprint,” Ivanka Trump told the Times about the business trip that she took eight days after giving birth to her daughter. Betraying what we can surmise was her education in gender studies, Maria Seidman, owner of a mobile app business, told the reporter that maternity leave was a “false construct.” One alpha mom, a partner at a consulting firm, remembered answering a message thus: “Can I e-mail you later? I’m in labor.”

Do we really need to regret that so few women want to live this way, treating a baby as a momentary interruption to an all-important job and keeping a foot on the career gas pedal after the kids come? Ever since they entered the labor market in large numbers, mothers have consistently shown a preference for shorter hours. In their thirties and forties, women with children are typically looking for ways to work less, not more. They’re twice as likely as men to work part-time, and surveys show that that’s the way they want it. Female physicians have been avoiding emergency-room medicine and flocking to dermatology and pediatrics, which bring fewer emergency calls and night hours. Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz have demonstrated that women’s preference for fewer and more flexible hours has transformed a number of professional occupations, including veterinary medicine, pharmacy work, and certain medical specialties. The group practices that have all but replaced lone practitioners in these fields allow women to limit their night and weekend hours, work three or four days a week, and avoid the headaches of ownership.

The rising generation of women doesn’t look likely to change any of this. One recent survey of students by four University of Wisconsin psychologists found that college women, as they planned their careers (and they did expect to work), were already thinking about cutting back hours when they had children. A recent Gallup poll showed that 44 percent of women wished that they didn’t work at all, compared with 22 percent of men.

A lot of feminists and work/family specialists assume that these preferences aren’t permanent. If we educated women properly and structured the workplace in a humane way, goes the thinking, women would want to spend more time at work and less at home, and men would want the opposite. It’s the structural, institutional, and ideological “barriers,” especially “domestic responsibilities,” that prevent women from gaining full workplace equality as they climb the career ladder.

It’s possible, I suppose. There’s a lot of research showing that men are becoming more hands-on with their children than their own fathers were. Human-resources offices see a growing appetite among fathers for flextime. Since they will be competing against other people who are obsessively focused on work, these men probably won’t be making it to the career peak, either. Which is fine: the alpha life isn’t for everyone.

The other possibility, though, is that children exert a stronger visceral pull on women than on men. That’s irrefutably true during pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding, but does the pull loosen entirely just because a child has started solid food? It’s doubtful. Nor do women necessarily find that it goes away if their husbands are “equal partners.” As Slaughter observes, somewhat apologetically, most women don’t “feel as comfortable as men do about being away from their children.”

And all that means that most women will continue to prefer long maternity leave, reduced hours, and part-time and flexible jobs. The end of men? Not in Alphaville.

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