The latest issue of Fortune, which focuses on women business leaders, has an interesting feature on why some women step off very high rungs of the corporate ladder. No, it’s not mommies “opting out” and trading briefcases for diapers, and it’s not women fleeing the corporate world in frustration at the “glass ceiling” (though I’m sure there are examples of both). Most of the women profiled in the article have traded the boardroom for new business ventures of their own, or work in new fields such as politics or entertainment, or travel and other pursuits. In many of the cases profiled, the change of direction is prompted by a life-changing event such as a near-death experience, which presumably leads to some soul-searching and a reassessment of priorities. Women, the article suggests, have more social freedom and more flexibility than men to make such unorthodox choices. The article concludes:
If there’s a single thread that ties together the experiences of these women, it’s that taking control of one’s own life can feel as bold as wielding power in a corporation. “It’s not that they’re abandoning it or walking away,” [former Genentech executive Myrtle] Potter says. “I see it as women really exercising their full set of options. And I think that’s just a gutsy, powerful thing to do.”
I think that women do, culturally and socially, have more options in this regard, while men, once they have reached a certain level, have more rigid expectations of success and staying on a set career track. In practice, this means there will be more men in positions of power, and probably also more men locked into unsatisfying lives.
This brings to mind a couple of quibbles I had with this week’s Time cover story on ambition. For one, the accompanying feature on minority women in corporations reflects the assumption that minority women who have to play by the rules of a white male-dominated workplace (even if these rules are applied in a race- and gender-neutral way), have to sacrifice their individual identity in a way white men do not. But white men, no less than minority women, are diverse individuals; just because the corporate norms were created by other white men doesn’t mean that an individual white man will find them a good fit. (Not all men, for instance, love sports talk.) Unless we believe that gender and race make us radically and irreducibly different types of human beings.
Second, the main story in the Time package framed its discussion of gender and ambition in terms of pop evolutionary psychology. For evidence, we have one study: in a laboratory setting where they had to do a test with a small reward for correct answers, 35% of women compared to 75% of men chose a competitive format over a non-competitive, less well-compensated one. From this, there are purely speculative assertions about how women might prefer competition in more team-oriented settings and how women who leave high-powered jobs to raise their children are pursuing a different type of evolutionary ambition by ensuring their reproductive success. I don’t deny that evolutionary psychology offers some interesting insights (though I think we still know very little about how exactly our evolutionary history influences the human mind, or which behavioral traits are gender-specific and which can be passed from fathers to daughters and mothers to sons). But it has turned into a set of popular clichés and buzzwords that purport to offer a catchall explanation for what makes people tick — much like Freudian psychology once was — and consistently overestimate human complexity.
Speaking of women leaving high-powered jobs for motherhood, back to the Forbes article for an interesting tidbit. Remember how, in 1998, Brenda Barnes gave up a $2 million a year job as CEO of a PepsiCo division because she wanted to spend more time with her family? At the time, her departure was widely seen as some sort of portentous event for American women. Quite a few conservatives gloated, and quite a few feminists gritted their teeth. Well, guess what: it turns out that Barnes went back to work six years later and is now CEO of Sara Lee (and No. 3 on Fortune‘s list of successful women). If Barnes if a symbol of anything, it’s not women’s retreat from the public sphere but women’s options and flexibility. And I do find it interesting that her comeback got so much less notice than her departure. I don’t think it’s because the media are in the grip of some anti-feminist backlash. But “woman quits power job to be a stay-at-home mom” is the kind of dramatic script that attracts attention. “Executive mom back from sabbatical” is not.