Smith College Admission Academics Student Life About Smith news Offices
About the Project
Facts About Women
Good Books
Workshops and Events
Project Staff
Related Links
Smith Students and Work-Life Issues
Womens Narratives of Success


Analysis of Smith College Cycles Survey Data from respondents attending between 2003-07 & 2004-08

The Women’s Narratives Project
Jessica Bacal
November, 2008

The purpose of Smith’s annual Cycles survey is to collect data about students’ college experience as well as their goals and expectations for the future. The Women’s Narratives Project incorporated questions in this survey designed to gather information on students’ thoughts about career and other life priorities, such as staying healthy and taking time for reflection. Nearly all Smith students will go on to careers after college. Because research shows that women still do more care-giving than men -- whether for aging parents or for their own children -- we also included questions about how students envision navigating the tension between care-giving and work.

Our two years of data so far point to a solid optimism among Smith students. Over three-quarters of students who responded to the survey said that they expect to have demanding careers. Over three-quarters expect to become established in those careers before having children. Their responses are consonant with research about the family-planning of highly-educated women. “Higher-skilled women are delaying marriage and children, often into their early 30s,” says Betsey Stevenson, professor of business and public policy at Wharton Business School. “They are staying flexible and investing in their careers -- waiting to have children until they have more information on how their careers will play out.” 1

In our data, students also express confidence about being able to build careers without losing sight of other important elements in a rewarding life. Four-fifths of students expect to pay attention to their health, to have satisfying relationships, and to be in control of their choices. Nearly as many students (78 percent) expect to take time for contemplation and reflection.

The outlook of Smith students resonates with recent research about a new generation of workers. A 2002 paper called “Generation and Gender,” put out by the Families and Work Institute, reports that Generations X and Y -- born after 1965 and 1980, respectively -- place a higher priority on balance than did previous generations. The Families and Work Institute has coined the term “dual-centric” for workers who place the same priority on their families and jobs, and “family-centric” for workers who place a higher priority on family. “Generation-X and Generation-Y are more likely to be dual-centric or family-centric,” the report says, and it offers a number of possible reasons. One is that younger people may have formed their attitudes in reaction to witnessing the busy and unpredictable lives of their dual-earner parents: “Gen-X and Gen-Y employees are themselves increasingly the children of working mothers and the children of the downsized generation. They know first hand what it is like to have one or two parents in a workforce where work has become increasingly demanding and hectic and many, if not most, have known someone who lost a job due to workforce downsizing.” 2

Our Cycles data suggests a different explanation, also rooted in young people’s experience: Students may expect to nimbly manage the dance between work and life because they’ve seen it done. Nearly two-thirds of our student respondents born in 1986 and 1987 said that they “have role models for balancing work and family.” Almost as many said that their own parents knew how to balance work and family.

For some students, balancing work and family means leaving their careers to become mothers, and then returning later on. This is one area in our data where survey respondents may be overly-optimistic. Over forty percent said, “I expect to take time off from my career when my children are young.” Of that group, about seventy percent said, “I expect to return to a successful career after taking time off.” But for many women who leave work, the road back is bumpier than they’d expected. This phenomenon was reported in the 2005 study, “Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Women on the Road to Success,” conducted by the Center for Work Life Policy. While the vast majority of educated women who take “off-ramps” would like to return to work, the study reported that “many find this more difficult than they anticipated.” 3

Another large study, this one of academics, showed that female professors with children were less likely to receive tenure. “Do Babies Matter?” examined data on 160,000 people who earned doctorates between 1978 and 1984, then stayed in academia:

Women who do have babies are nearly 30 percent less likely than women without babies ever to snag a tenure-track position. And of those women in the study who had babies early on, only 56 percent earned tenure within 14 years after receiving their Ph.D. Of men who became fathers early on, 77 percent earned tenure. Of men who never had babies, 71 percent got tenure. 4

We hope that the American workplace will continue to evolve to adapt to the needs of working women and families. We imagine that the confident young women who responded to our Cycles survey -- women who expect to balance successful careers with other life priorities -- will go into the world and help to create policies that push companies and universities further along, shaping them to their own hopes and expectations.


1. Knowledge @ Wharton Network. (2007, March 7). I Do’s and Don’ts: How Changes in Marriage, Divorce and Childbirth are Redefining the Workplace. (Newsletter.) Philadelphia: Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved October 31, 2008.

2. Families and Work Institute. (2006). Generation and Gender in the Workplace. (Issue Brief.) New York: American Business Collaboration. Retrieved on October 6, 2006.

3. Center for Work-Life Policy. (2005). Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Women on the Road to Success. (Press Release). Retrieved December 11, 2006.

4. As cited in Wilson, R. (2003, December 5). How Babies Alter Careers for Academics. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved November 8, 2006.

DirectoryCalendarCampus MapVirtual TourContact UsSite A-Z