Harvard Study: Women Place Less Importance than Men on Paid Work, Promotion

September 25, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Once again, timing is everything.

Hot on the heels of several articles seeking to convince men that they don’t do enough childcare and that, if they did more, their female partners would do more paid work, comes this study out of the Harvard Business School.  It’s one the likes of Anne Marie Slaughter, her husband Andrew MoravcsikAnthony Wong and countless others would do well to read.  But alas, I suspect those folks are so deeply immersed in their belief that what women really want more than anything is to be like men, i.e. spending their lives at paid work.

I’ve pointed out many times that that’s demonstrably untrue and contrary to an elementary understanding of biologically-evolved sex roles.  But the screeds just keep coming.

Indeed, long after Slaughter’s and shortly after her husband’s, the Daily Mail published a piece retailing the stories of three British women – all of them strong believers in earning their own way – who, on giving birth to a child, abandoned all pretense of working for pay.  Each was surprised at the power of her own desire to do little or nothing but care for her child.

Those stories of course have no statistical importance, but they tellingly convey the strength of the mother-child bond.  In so doing, they make even the casual reader question the narrative that seeks to convince us that women’s true destiny is to work for money like men.

More important is the linked-to study. 

[W]e find that, compared to men, women have a higher number of life goals, place less importance on power-related goals, associate more negative outcomes (e.g., goal conflict and tradeoffs) with high-power positions, perceive power as less desirable though equally attainable, and are less likely to take advantage of opportunities for professional advancement.

Of course, the policy position of National Parents Organization is that, regardless of what men and women’s cultural and/or evolutionary tendencies might be, individual men and women are each entitled to assume the role(s) that work best for the family and for themselves. Dividing the responsibilities between parenting and breadwinning is a personal decision that men and women can and should agree upon. Men and women are equally entitled to pursue their dreams, limited only by what they negotiate with their partner from a position of equality. And National Parents Organization also believes that if the parents separate or divorce, the courts must treat fathers and mothers the same.

Nevertheless, the Harvard study is important and its results must be looked at carefully. Women have more life goals than do men, but place less value on attaining power, consider positions of power to involve unacceptable tradeoffs and conflict with other important goals and therefore are less likely to seek professional advancement.  Importantly, that’s all true despite the fact that those women consider their chances of attaining those positions of power to be equal to men’s.

Read those findings carefully.  Women have more life goals than do men, but place less value on attaining power, consider positions of power to involve unacceptable tradeoffs and conflict with other important goals and therefore are less likely to seek professional advancement.  Importantly, that’s all true despite the fact that those women consider their chances of attaining those positions of power to be equal to men’s.

In short, the findings of the Harvard study are precisely in line with what I’ve been saying for years now.  More importantly, they’re in line with many datasets that repeatedly find women working fewer hours than men, taking time off to care for children and simply opting out of the corporate rat race.  For that matter, while the study is about employment and career advancement, its findings parallel those of another one of women in political life.

That study, entitled Sex as a Political Variable, demonstrates conclusively that “when women run, they win.”  That is, there is no glass ceiling in politics, no bias on the part of voters against women.  The relative lack of women in elective office is because they don’t throw their hats in the ring as often as do men.  Very much like women in the workplace, those women don’t see advancement in politics to be as desirable as do men and therefore fewer women run for office despite the fact that they’re as likely to prevail as are the men who do run.

In area after area of everyday life, it’s the same story told by study after study, article after article, personal experience after personal experience.  Women and men are different and nowhere is that more apparent than in their choices about how to spend their time.  Paid work and family time make up a lot of the hours of the day for many adults, so how men and women choose to allocate time between the two tells us a lot about the sexes.  Unsurprisingly, men do more paid work and women do more childcare.

Equally unsurprising is that those behaviors match sex roles evolved over millions of years.  Twenty-first century America looks nothing like Africa of two million years ago or the Middle East at the dawn of the Agricultural Revolution, but men and women still hold to the mating and survival strategies that got us here.

People like Slaughter and Moravcsik desperately want us to believe that society must be completely rearranged in order to coerce both sexes into acting in ways that are alien to them and that, at every turning, they refuse.  In her recent article, Slaughter told us that “something has to give,” i.e. either men have to do more unpaid work or women have to do more of the paid variety, or both.  But she never let on as to why we must so radically depart from our age-old roles.  As long as women are free to become CEOs of major corporations or be stay-at-home-moms, as long as both endeavors are respected, and as long as the same is true for men, exactly why should we distort society, coerce women and men alike into being something they’re not and waste time, money and precious goodwill in the process?

The authors of the study point out that their results don’t tell us whether men’s and women’s preferences reflect biology or culture.  True enough.  But here’s a suggestion: cultural messages supporting women as mothers and men as breadwinners are but expressions of our biological inheritance.  It’s no surprise that what we do as a society, the messages we convey to ourselves and others, reflect the value we place on what’s worked for countless millennia.  

The only surprise is that there are so many messages to the contrary.  It’s far too late to pretend that the only social messages for women in American society encourage motherhood at the expense of other endeavors.  That may have been true at one time, but no more.  Indeed, popular culture and much of academia consistently denigrate women as mothers and laud pretty much any other role.  

For men, the scene looks different.  We’re catching up in our support for men playing the hands-on father role, but it’s nothing like our encouragement to women in the workplace.  And of course family courts tell fathers every day that their place is anywhere but in the home with their children.  Until we acknowledge the fact that men make as good parents as do women, that children need each parent equally, that equal respect for each sex in each role will be lacking.

What the likes of Slaughter, Moravscik, et al miss altogether is that it just may be that women’s preferences serve them better than do men’s.  As the Harvard study suggests, much of women’s avoidance of higher-level jobs is actually an avoidance of the stress that goes along with them.  At the beginning of the 20th century, American women outlived men by an average of about a year.  Today it’s closer to 5 ½ years.  I’m not the first one to wonder if a great deal of men’s shorter lifespans has to do with taking on the burden of breadwinning at the expense of other interests and in an increasingly competitive workaday world.

So it may just be that those who shout for women spending more time at the office, striving like men for ever greater incomes and promotions, may just be threatening them with the type of life-threatening conditions men suffer from.  That’s not doing women any favors.

No, it strikes me that we’d all be better served if men had a bit more balance in their lives and that means spending more time with their children.  My guess is that men would be happier, more contented, more fulfilled and less stressed if they did exactly that.

But until we get there, let’s at least stop the hectoring of men and women alike.  Let’s honor the choices they make and stop trying to alter society to conform to someone’s ideal – someone who may or may not have our best interests at heart and who may or may not know the basics of human sex roles.


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