Carol T. Christ, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Winter 2004–05
In the mid-1970s, I was a newly tenured faculty member at the University of California at Berkeley. Like many of my colleagues, I was beginning a family and struggling with a new—and newly fraught—relationship to time. Preoccupied with balancing career and children, I sought advice in the places I knew best: books, articles, and journals. One of my touchstones was a 1975 essay by sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, titled "Inside the Clockwork of Male Careers," a work that had&—and still has—a powerful impact upon me.
As a young working mother, I found Hochschild's images resonant. I remember most vividly her sense of conflict watching a woman in a station wagon, driving up to a building in the early evening, elbow on the window, children in the back, to pick up a man, walking briskly down the steps with a briefcase. Hochschild wrote that whenever she sees such images, something inside her rips in half, for she was neither and both—the wife in the station wagon and the husband with the briefcase.
Today, the husband might pick the children up from day care while the wife returns from a business trip. But the main point of Hochschild's essay is as timely as it was thirty years ago. Hochschild argued that our society's conception of "the career" has embedded within it assumptions about time that form powerful obstacles for women—time not only in a daily sense—the juggling of tasks and responsibilities for which the hours of a day never seem enough—but in regard to the years in which an individual achieves professional success.
In the past thirty years, we have seen a profound change in women's representation in the professions. Yet women have not achieved the parity in leadership positions—political office, corporate management—that we might hope.
Media attention has gone recently to the argument that women aren't in the top spots because they choose not to compete. In a controversial article that appeared last fall in the New York Times Magazine, "The Opt-Out Revolution," Lisa Belkin wrote that as women who were supposed to be men's professional equals look up at the "top," they are increasingly deciding that they don't want to do what it takes to get there.
Arguments like Lisa Belkin's depend upon a false idea that women face an either/or choice—between, on the one hand, a male norm, in which relentless, uninterrupted dedication to a career goal leads to success, and, on the other, near total rejection of the workplace. Yet our working lives today are far longer than the time spent in raising children. We must not succumb to the myth that ambition looks like a straight line. Mary Bateson's comparative study of the biographies of five women, Composing A Life, speaks eloquently of our overemphasis on achievement as monolithic rather than protean and improvisatory. We need to create different narratives of women's lives—ones that tell the story of balance, of professional success that does not follow a straight line.
We also need to lobby for policy changes that support the balance between family and career—paid family leave, flexible hours, part-time professional jobs that do not sacrifice the opportunity to advance. As the policy analyst Nancy Rankin argues, we need as many on-ramps as off-ramps.
What can colleges, and specifically women's colleges, do to change the clockwork of professional careers? Research shows that women's colleges are particularly effective in producing leaders. I believe this is true because they provide a culture in which all elements work together to reinforce a single message: women's voices matter. When I travel around the country and the world talking to Smith alumnae, I often ask what aspect of Smith has had the most powerful shaping influence upon their lives. The answer I get is consistent: confidence in my capacities, the belief that I could do anything I set my mind to.
College is a time of reinvention, of re-imprinting. Unfortunately, a message often reinforced these days is one of competitive stress: one needs to do it all, perfectly, simultaneously, in order to succeed. The myth persists that balance and success are not compatible and that a balanced life is not a sign of a successful career. At Smith this fall, one of the important campus-wide dialogues we have initiated is about balance and wellness: how to construct a capacious and humane life composed of choices, not merely tradeoffs; how to invent a clockwork, whether of a day or a lifespan, that keeps time for families and careers, fulfillment and ambition. Smith alumnae have thought long and hard about these issues; fortunately for today's students, I know you stand ready to join the conversation.
Carol Christ can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.