Sitting on a yoga mat with our feet dangling over the edge of the dilapidated, wooden framework of the balcony attached to my apartment, my best friend and I pondered the rapidity with which the culmination of assignments, projects, all-nighters, exams and trips across the state had propelled us to the summer before our senior year of college. The booming strains of house music from across the street mingled with each laugh and anxious thought that infused the humid, summer night around us. We discussed everything from jobs to relocating to the shared sense of indecisiveness we’d both need to overcome to eventually make these decisions. We delved deeper into the future, trying to imagine separate timelines for all the goals and accomplishments we hoped were awaiting us in the looming expanse of uncertainty ahead.
Although the notion of strategizing and plotting out our lives may be appealing and offer some reassurance, there’s absolutely no guarantee that our prospective goals and achievements will occur in sync with some defined schedule we attempt to craft during our undergraduate years. Obstacles are inevitable. Extenuating circumstances may someday lead our personal and professional ambitions to conflict, forcing the prioritization of one over the other. For a great deal of women, the reality of this potential scenario is reinforced during discussions about maintaining an effective balance between personal and professional life and trying to “have it all.”
An article by Liza Mundy in The Atlantic titled “Playing the Granny Card” suggests the recent surge of highly ambitious female politicians and officials — Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Elizabeth Merkel to name a few— who are seeking or holding leadership positions of immense clout in their 60s is due to the notion that women are “often held back in midlife by domestic responsibilities” and “are in many ways suited to shift into high gear at a later age.” Women — due to discrepancies between the methods by which they are evaluated in comparison to their male counterparts — assume positions at a more advanced age. While only 4.8 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, those who do eventually advance to the position are around the average age of 52.8 years old. The overwhelmingly larger portion of male colleagues usually does so around the age of 50.2. The trend of older women in public office is further supported by the fact that the median age for female representatives in the U.S. House of Representatives is 59.1.
While it’s both extremely extraordinary and inspiring to see that a woman’s ability to make a substantial impact upon society isn’t constricted by her age, the accompanying notion that female accomplishments may, then, need to be delayed until a woman’s domestic duties are concluded — whatever she chooses those to be — is concerning. Some positions in certain fields, to an extent, will always require the immense knowledge and experience acquired by a practicing individual of an advanced age. Action, however, should be taken to assist women so they don’t need to wait until their 50s, or even their 60s, to consider advancing to the top sectors in their field.
At the outset of their careers, women are almost on par with the men. Young women — as they begin their professional careers between the ages of 25 and 34 — earn roughly 90 percent of what their male counterparts earn. Soon afterwards, the wage disparity between the sexes expands as women age. This aggravation of the gap leads to women between the age of 45 and 54 earning only around 76 percent of what their male colleagues earn, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. As women approach motherhood, the need for flexibility and reduced work hours increases. Likewise, studies published in both the Journal of Social Issues and in the American Journal of Sociology found that mothers were perceived as possessing lower levels of competence in the workplace, a perception that can hinder a woman’s progress in the professional realm.
Negotiation between working and caring for children is a decision women will likely consider as they choose to begin having families. However, one initial step to, at the very least, reduce the possibility women will have to delay their professional or financial ambitions due to domestic obligations is to improve the nation’s current stance on paid maternity leave.
Pregnancy and maternity leave are issues that may never affect some women’s professional lives, and at the moment, it’s a situation that’s extremely distant from the mindsets of my friends and me. However, as young women enter the workforce and the topic begins to enter the realm of possibility more and more, prospective maternity concerns become an influential force on whether or not specific career steps are taken. Due to the fact the Family and Medical Leave Act only requires employers to offer 12 weeks of unpaid leave once an employee has worked at an institution for a full year, many women may neglect switching jobs, or even seeking a promotion, if there’s the slightest possibility they could become pregnant in the near future.
Currently, the United States severely lags behind in the assistance it offers to women who recently gave birth. It’s the only developed nation that neglects to offer paid maternity leave to new mothers, and the United States and Papua New Guinea are the only two nations in the world that fail to do so. New mothers — in an attempt to balance both caring for their child and maintaining their professional goals — often try to aggregate a combination of sick days and vacation days in addition to their limited allotment of leave days to counteract this insufficiency.
By refusing to offer paid maternity leave, the U.S. is neglecting a widely accepted practice capable of alleviating some of the financial and professional constraints women face as they become new mothers.
For women trying to plan their futures, the desire to adequately maintain their professional and personal ambitions is a task that’s bound to be met with a certain degree of difficulty. While the current outlook illustrates a promising future where women can continue to make significant contributions to society even in the latter half of their lives, potential motherhood shouldn’t immediately signify a regression in their careers. Yes, the respective balancing act will someday be very difficult for a multitude of women, and it will be due to a variety of factors, one of which is the lack of paid maternity leave. However, when one factor is known to financially and professionally constrain new mothers and has been remedied time and time again by numerous nations, why would we not strive to change it?