Careers and choices

Apparently, according to a recent study of Harvard Business School graduates, ‘it’s not kids that hold women back, it’s husbands‘. The study shows that high-flying women’s careers suffer in comparison to those of their male peers because the women are more likely to end up permitting their spouse’s career to take precedence over theirs – even though this is not something they expected would happen. According to the article, this supports Linda Hirshman’s advice to ambitious women that they should marry men who have less money or social capital than they do.

This article bothered me a bit. I’m not querying the research, but framing the finding in terms of suggesting to women than they ‘choose’ to ‘marry down’ strikes an off note, and I think there are three reasons for this. First, the idea of ‘marrying down’ evokes such a hierarchical way of looking at social relations in general and at marriage in particular that it makes me feel like I’ve dropped in on a Jane Austen novel. Second, it makes finding a partner sound like a matter of calculated choice, which I don’t think it is. Third, and most importantly, it places the onus on women to choose male partners who don’t have the option of having an equivalently demanding career. This takes the focus away from men actually choosing to support their female partner’s career by giving it equal importance to theirs. (It also rather skims over the option of women finding male partners who are genuinely committed to equality – which would still place the onus on women, but is slightly less depressing.) The problem is then presented as being women’s choices (to marry the ‘wrong’ men) rather than men’s choices (not to support their female partner’s careers) – sound familiar?

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