Open Letter to My Daughters and Nieces:
I owe you all an apology. When you were babies, I said you could grow up to be anything you wanted. When Daughter #3 said she wanted to be a Zamboni driver, I assured her that she could be the greatest one ever. I just didn’t mention to her that the odds are good she’d be driving that Zamboni unpaid 133 days per year—to make up for making only about 2/3 of the pay of the average man doing a similar job.
Back when my generation tooled up to University on our dinosaurs, we had it all figured out. We had the vote, so we controlled our political future. We had the Pill and Roe V Wade, so we controlled our reproductive rights. We’d never heard of Aids, nobody marched for breast cancer, and penicillin cured STDs, so we would live forever. We were going to pass the Equal Rights Amendment any second now, start fabulous careers, raise amazing families, and Have. It. All. My seven sisters—your aunts—and I became engineers, teachers, bankers, lawyers, urban planners, and even (I’m sorry to say) Human Resources executives.
Now my sisters and I are grownups who have had decades-long professional careers and most of us have been parents. Only somehow…we must have forgotten to check off a few action items on our to-do lists. Because that equality stuff hasn’t actually happened yet and you, our children, are adults. Some of you have daughters of your own.
A few years back, your aunts and I were talking about a letter in Amy Dickenson’s syndicated column, “Ask Amy: Advice for the Real World” (here) from a young woman asking about the best timing for having a baby and establishing a career. Woman Who Wants It All wrote (in part):
“I planned to have a child in the 30-32 range, which is when I will be new to my field. I want to be taken seriously as a professional but not miss my window for having a baby. I would love to hear from you about the “best way” to make it work.”
Amy’s response was nothing we haven’t heard before. After dismissing the young woman’s fears—that “women who have children are not ‘taken seriously’ in the workplace”—as baseless, Amy went on to suggest starting that first great job before having children.
My sister, a well-educated professional and mother of five, was not impressed with Amy’s advice. Here is her letter published on February 2, 2016. With her permission, I’m quoting her entire letter.
DEAR AMY: I’m responding to the letter from “Woman Who Wants It All” regarding the timing of having a baby. My advice is that she must be prepared for how it will affect her career.
You can “lean in” as much as you want — but unless you own the company or have the resources for 24-hour nanny care, you will be treated differently from the guy in the next cubicle who also has children at home. I hope she has the bandwidth to maintain family, career, and continue to stand up for equal rights.
I am an engineer. In the 1980s we saw technical programs opening up to women as a result of affirmative action. Unfortunately, things have gone in the other direction — with fewer women making successful careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) related fields.
I was in a meeting recently with some of the top men (including the head of engineering) at our company. The conference room was full. During my presentation I looked around the room and thought, “I have been working for 20-plus years and I am still the only woman in the room.” I was also the lowest-ranking person in the room.
Just some realistic food for thought. — Woman in STEM
My sisters and I found Amy’s response—”DEAR STEM: Preach, sister.”—deeply unsatisfying.
EMAILS to our family shared list:
If any of you read the Ask Amy advice column, check out the snarky letter from the middle aged female engineer today. Yah. Its me.
I have never responded to these, but this woman was concerned that having a child would affect her career. Amy’s response was to ‘reject that unfortunate assumption’.
In reality there is no denying that a woman’s professional career is impacted by a child much more than a man’s is. Even if they are splitting the care – the perception in the work force is that a mommy can not do what a daddy can. Not only that – but any woman who CAN, is a damn freak of nature and should be diminished in the hopes that her kind doesn’t become the norm.
Bitter you say ? maybe a little …
One of the many things I love about [my career in] government is the diversity. And it extends beyond race, gender, and orientation. My colleagues come from all walks of life. And same goes for senior management. (Except Republicans . . . We just don’t have many in Chicago.)
Yah – I get it. There are exceptions to the rule. However …
We just received a message from our COMPANY LEADERSHIP TEAM.
10 men, 1 woman
Do the math.
I also work in a team of all men, but the main difference for me is that when my daughter was in Kindergarten, I went to a 30 hour work week. The real plus of that, was that I felt I was in control of deciding when to put in extra hours, and I didn’t have to travel for work. So, I may not have reached the pay-grade that I could have, but it was totally worth it.
Yah – the part time gig has been used and used and used.
However, we have some actual MEN here (whose wives have left them and they are responsible for their children) who work a part time flexible schedule and GUESS WHAT ? They are still promoted to higher positions than their female peers.
I have been in on meetings where people are wondering if a woman (30+) should be promoted given that she hasn’t had any kids yet, so what is going to happen in the next couple years ??? AND no one ever (well, except me) mentions that maybe we should factor in the male tendency to have a heart attack and mess up the schedule by being out of work…
When I start to get worked up about this sh** , I realize that I have it a lot easier than a black, gay, woman … so yah, lets look on the sunny side, right ?
It’s depressing as my youngest daughter is about to start an engineering career on Monday. I feel frustrated, like this is something we were supposed to have fixed and we let our daughters down.
Years ago one of my friends, Bob, played in a band. He was tall, good looking and white. One time the band’s manager was not available to book a gig and he sent my friend Bob to do it. It was at a popular bar downtown. All went well. However, when the band arrived and the owners of the bar saw that the lead singer was a black female they had second thoughts. The upshot was the band played but for A LOWER PRICE. Bob was shocked. He didn’t think that type of discrimination happened in [towns like ours]. The band manager (also black) response was ‘That’s because it does not happen to YOU’ I have always remembered that.
When I talk about the discrepancy between male/female roles here at work – it is easily brushed off. The managers I speak to can’t imagine that happening HERE. They think we (females) are overreacting. That’s because it does not happen to THEM.
All you have to do is take a walk around any engineering building. Females are NOT represented proportionately to the population. Females as MANAGERS are not represented proportionate to the number of women at work. And, finally, women on the leadership teams (highest level of management) are almost non-existent.
Companies are quick to trot out a woman who had made it to the top. She is quoted gushingly encouraging girls to strive for the top of the math/science fields. Great PR. However, although I absolutely agree than girls are CAPABLE of achieving the highest levels in math/science, the chances they will get the opportunity to perform at that level are VERY VERY VERY SMALL.
And it bugs the hell out of me.
So, my daughters and nieces—why am I apologizing to you today? Sure, I wish we could have fixed this. We should have fixed it by now. Instead, even as we are hearing the Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe v Wade’s legalization of abortion, the conversation keeps coming back to the same points. The pay difference is just how we keep score.
Tina Fey brings it up in her tragically funny “Confessions of a Juggler” article for the New Yorker when she asks:
What is the rudest question you can ask a woman? “How old are you?” “What do you weigh?” “When you and your twin sister are alone with Mr. Hefner, do you have to pretend to be lesbians?” No, the worst question is: “How do you juggle it all?”
It’s not about the gender pay gap. It’s about the gender-coded messages that say it’s fine for women to make it to the top, as long as they know their place and have great hair and the right shoes and don’t mind warping their children’s lives with their utter failure to nurture them.
So I’m sorry. We didn’t fix the world. I hope you do a better job than we did. And I hope you do it before your daughters have to figure out why it’s only women who have to ask how to have it all.
2013 Clip from “Scandal”: Lisa Kudrow as a Congresswoman running for President