Sumana Palle, a Business junior and executive board member for What the F feminist magazine, and Associate Prof. Elizabeth Armstrong, a sociologist who specializes in gender and higher education research, met at The Michigan Daily newsroom to discuss this question. Below are selected excerpts from their conversation.
Sumana Palle: I mean, I know the intention wasn’t bad, but when I first read the question I was kind of offended, I felt like it was a bit sexist. It was such a gendered question as if something different is expected of male students than female students. Which it is, in reality, but I feel like at this point we should try and combat that as opposed to asking if it is possible for females to have the same quality of life — I felt that the question was implying — as males.
Prof. Elizabeth Armstrong: That’s interesting. I guess the way to rephrase the question … is how do both men and women kind of build lives out of college where they can combine work and family, personal and professional success, and what are the conditions for that?
SP: Right, and I felt like the question should more be what can we do to make sure that female students can have it all, as vague as that is. What can we do to make sure everyone regardless of race, gender, sexuality, whatever can have whatever they want to have, and that should be the question.
EA: Expanding the options.
EA: But, then of course, that immediately leads to what are some of the things that tend to reduce those options for people. And of course, that would vary depending on what kind of group they’re in whether it’s gender or race or disability or sexual orientation, so, I don’t know.
SP: I feel like a lot of our conversation about strong women tends to surround, well, either you’re this way or this way. The conversation tends to be divisive. You’re either the woman who chooses to have the career and you’re the bitch and you’re the one who sacrifices what is “important.” And you have the women who choose the family home, and, you know you’re the weak link who went against everything strong women have fought for in history and, I don’t know, I think the question implies there’s a black and white when really …
EA: Well, it’s usually both “and” when people really want it all. They want to be able to be nurturing and professionally successful. And both strong and vulnerable and not have to be forced into making hard choices. So, it shouldn’t be a kind of dichotomy.
EA: Yeah, but it often gets pushed and it’s often assumed and it’s often put in a situation where it’s put on the individual, where it’s women who are deciding, “Oh, is she opting out or is she pursuing her career” when, in fact, the sort of circumstances in which people are placed are sort of forcing the hard decisions…
EA: So it’s not the people are different so much as the decisions push people really in a dramatic way, either one way or the other.
SP: Right. And I feel like we’re kind of in a changing environment where it’s not just female students who have to choose this, it’s also the male. We’re no longer in traditional gender roles where the guy’s the one who kind of can have it all — he has the wife who chooses to stay home with the family. That’s no longer in existence.
EA: No, and I think it’s still possible for some men, but I think that people miss out. When men are in a situation, or women, where their work demands are such where they can’t participate in the kind of meaningful moments in the lives of the people they care about, whether it’s children or other loved ones, where they’re at work and can’t leave when there’s a school play or a major hospital thing going on or a doctor’s appointment. It’s painful, it’s not really human if people can’t have the sort of flexibility to do the things they need to do to take care of the people in their lives. And that has a real kind of class component to it too, because it’s likely that one of the things graduating from the University of Michigan will buy most people is the opportunity to have the kind of quality of work where they’ll have the flexibility where they will be able to leave work to go to the doctors appointment whereas other people aren’t going to be able to have that if they’re going to get fired by taking the time.
SP: Which, going back to what you were saying about the man having to sacrifice, that’s the other problem I had with the question that it kind of made it seem like only females have to face this choice but men do too.
EA: Well there’s just a lot of things that it’s possible to want. So, I mean, in that sense there it comes to a kind of value-based thing. There’s the issue of what structure, what kind of structural arrangements can be set up to make it possible for people to have lots of different things that they value in their life but then it’s also the case that it probably isn’t possible for anybody — man or woman — to really fully engage in the nurturing of, like, five children and have a super, super amazingly ambitious career. I mean, they may be able to have five children and do that if they don’t actually fully participate themselves in the process of nurturing them, but there is a finite quality of life. I mean, we’re not going to all climb Mt. Everest and be president and have ten children. People are always going to have to make choices about what things they care about, and that’s men and women. It’s just women are usually put in that situation of having to make harder choices.
SP: I completely agree! … And I do see where the question was coming from, I don’t want to completely bash the question, but in society, like you said, women do have to make harder choices and for us, I feel like it’s always a fight.