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MIT 21W 735 - Elite University Women’s Choice

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Jamie Shin 21W.735 R01: Reading & Writing the Essay Essay #3 (Investigative Essay): Draft 2 Dec 13, 2005 Return of the Traditionalists?: Elite University Women’s Choice Smart, ambitious and driven. Those three words probably best describe today’s young women. Raised by the first generation of Supermoms (women who not only had families but also careers), gender inequality is not something familiar to them. From a very young age, they are encouraged to participate and excel in traditionally non-female fields across academics and athletics. I remember there was a popular Nike advertisement featuring Mia Hamm and Michael Jordan a few years ago. The slogan was “anything you [Michael Jordan] can do, I [Mia Hamm] can do better.” The advertisement showed snapshots of Mia Hamm and Michael Jordan playing different sports and in every snapshot, she was portrayed to be a step ahead of him. That’s exactly the kind of attitude today’s young women have grown up with: anything guys can do, we can do just as well, maybe even better. Giving up just isn’t part of our vocabulary. Numbers speak for themselves. At Harvard University, the number of female students in the freshman class exceeded that of male students in 2001. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a traditionally male-dominated research institute, about 50 percent of its freshman class are female students. It’s a national trend—more female students are seeking higher education. It does not stop there. The number of female students in professional and graduate degree programs are on the rise as well. It’s not an unusual thing anymore to meet a female professor in engineering or a female 1executive. I was also raised with this “anything they [guys] can do, I can do better” slogan. I have been a great follower of the trend. I went to a math and science magnet school and I am due to graduate with a degree in Economics from MIT. With a degree from an “elite” institution, I plan on going into something more competitive, fast-paced and male-dominated: the corporate world. Like many other students with background in Economics or Finance, my choice of industry is investment banking: prestigious, notorious for the workload, and predominantly male—historically and concurrently across all levels. Until I started interviewing, I did not fully realize how male the industry is. In the recruiting process, I met more than a handful of interviewers—mostly junior to mid-level professionals in the industry. And only two of them were female; both first-year analysts, only one year senior to me. As I sat in the waiting area of the Career Services Center waiting for my interviews, I looked around the room. The gender ratio seemed pretty even, at least on the recruit level. If it starts out pretty even, close to 50:50, what happened to those “missing” women in mid-level management? If they grew up as ambitious and driven, where are they now, 10 years after graduation? Has “giving up” become part of their vocabulary once they left school? I wondered. In late September this year, I ran across an interesting article from the New York Times that answered my initial question but also raised more questions. After reading “Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood” by Louise Story, the mystery was solved: the missing women are at home with children. “My mother’s always told me you can’t be the best career woman and the best mother at the same time,” Ms. Liu said matter-of-factly. “You always have to 2choose one over the other.” There was the answer to my previous question. Because a choice had to be made, women choose to stay home. I did not like the answer. What about most fathers? Are they passing up on opportunities to be the best dads in order to be the best professionals? Why is it a choice for women when it is not for men? Is it really impossible to be the best parent and best professional at the same time? It seemed to be against everything modern feminists had fought for. What’s more disturbing is that many young, smart women make the decision to significantly (and negatively) alter their career path even before starting their career. Story did a survey of Ivy League college women, and about 30 percent of women surveyed said they planned to leave the workforce while their children were young, while another 30 percent planned to work part-time. Many students featured in Story’s article said that despite their high ambitions of earning advanced degrees and having high-powered careers, they are planning on sacrificing their career to have a family. Some may argue that there is no reason to be alarmed by what the survey is suggesting. What one thinks when she is in her late teens and early twenties isn’t necessarily the best indicator for what she will do later in life. However, it should be noted that expectations both reflect and influence the prevailing social and cultural norms related to gender roles. What’s causing these young smart women to make such important career decision without much hesitation? Historically, women had to fight for the right to higher education and access to fulfilling careers. When those are available, why are today’s young women walking away? Were the efforts of modern feminists futile? Altering one’s career is not a decision to be taken lightly. A study done by Pamela Stone and Meg 3Lovejoy suggests that the cost of career interruption accounts for as much as one-third of the gender gap in earnings. Despite the steep cost, women with higher education are out of the labor force at a rate roughly 3 times that of their male counterparts. Many women are leaving the work force in their 30s, the prime time for their career development, despite their ambition and achievement. It’s a loss not only for those women but also for the younger generation, whose expectations are heavily influenced by the cultural norm set by those ahead of them. In 1980, there was a similar article on the New York Times titled “Many Young Women Now Say They’d Pick Family Over Career.” Over three-fourths of women then said mothers should either not work or only work part-time until their children were 5 years old. The majority of men agreed. In Story’s survey, 25 years later, roughly 60 percent of women answered that they are planning on altering their career for family. Only two participants in


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