Skip to main content

Young women are ambitious, but worried

By Orit Avishai, Special to CNN
March 23, 2013 -- Updated 1623 GMT (0023 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Orit Avishai: My young college female students are ambitious and smart
  • Avishai: But they worry about balancing family and career and whether to have children
  • She says the choices that these women plan to make are rational and realistic
  • Avishai: Much will depend on what the American workplace of the future look like

Editor's note: Orit Avishai, an assistant professor of sociology at Fordham University, is the author of "Managing the Lactating Body: The Breast-Feeding Project and Privileged Motherhood."

(CNN) -- As a college professor who has talked to hundreds of women who are aiming to break the glass ceiling, I find that all the hubbub about paving the road to success by enlisting mentors, joining a support group, and simply learning to take it like a man misses a crucial point: Young women are ambitious but worried about making it all happen.

Like clockwork, my female college students -- future doctors, lawyers, bankers, and computer programmers -- show up for office hours when course materials confront them with the realities of gender and family issues in the 21st century.

The key questions on these minds of these twenty-something-year-olds are: Will they ever be able to have kids if they pursue a career in medicine, law, banking, or high-tech? Should their Plan B exclude kids altogether? Is there any hope that will not repeat the mistakes of mothers who opted out and found out they couldn't opt back in when their children were grown? Is it really going to be that difficult?

Orit Avishai
Orit Avishai

Even though these women are, statistically, years away from marriage and bearing children, and they have come to take careers and economic independence for granted, they know that work/family balance is a thorny subject. And they are worried about how -- and if -- they can have it all.

Opinion: Don't ask for all, ask what makes you happy

So I do a little therapy with them. We start with the obvious: Find a spouse who will split up the housework; (the research is on their side; American men are pulling much more weight at home than ever before). We talk about delaying childbearing. We talk about finding the "right fit."

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



But there's no way to work around the elephant in the room: a supportive spouse, the right career choice, and delaying childbearing into their 30s won't help them figure out how to remain on the fast track when they're aching not to miss their babies' first steps or first day in kindergarten.

10 views: Our struggle to 'have it all'

"I don't necessarily need to be there with cookie and milk everyday when my kids come home from school but I want to be a part of my kids' lives. How can you do that if you're working 12 hours a day?" said one future doctor. She's considering forgoing children altogether.

Sheryl Sandberg's challenge to women

And she's not alone. American women are having fewer children and at later ages. A staggering number of them are deciding to not to have children. Some pundits are worried, while others celebrate the diversity of choices.

Kathleen Gerson, a sociologist at New York University interviewed young men and women about their perceptions of work-family issues before the real juggle began. She learned that both men and women were planning on equally sharing their work and home requirements. However, there was a persistent gender gap between these young, still childless men and women. Their "Plan Bs" varied widely: Young men thought that if the equality ideal failed, their wives would be the ones to cut back on work. Young women agreed. Which brings us back to glass ceilings and shattered dreams.

Work, family and 'leaning in': Seven families trying to make it work

One particularly bright student, nearing graduation, reflected on how she has always felt equal to her male peers; in fact, she out-performed them.

"I was the total driven alpha male," she said. She was thrilled to land a lucrative internship at a bio-tech research lab after her junior year. "And that's when it hit me," she said, of her choice, to rethink her career plans; "I realized that I was never going to see daylight! I mean, I was working with these brilliant people. These brilliant women. But there was this young mother who always trying to get out early enough to spend time with her son; and of course it almost never worked out. I mean the kid was fine, the dad picked him up from preschool. But watching her struggle really made me think. I always thought that I was just going to make it work. But now I'm not so sure anymore."

She's still heading out to a prestigious Ph.D. program in the fall, but is now thinking of a less demanding career path.

For a new generation of women, they are making rational choices. They understand that their ability to balance their lives has much more to do with what the American workplace of the future will look like than any of the choices they will make. The question remains: Will the workplace of the future evolve for the better so that women won't have to worry anymore?

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Orit Avishai.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1119 GMT (1919 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1212 GMT (2012 HKT)
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 0148 GMT (0948 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT